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Kuchler, Kenneth
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Laurel girl completes Montana Youth Challenge Academy with nary a demerit

By MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com

Having just turned 17, Sam Cole of Laurel will begin studying psychology at the University of Montana Western next week. But just six months ago, college seemed about as achievable as interplanetary travel.

Cole, a straight-A student who dropped out of Laurel High School in February, was one of 82 cadets to graduate from Montana Youth Challenge Academy on Dec. 17. She earned several accolades during her five months at the Dillon-based academy, which employs a highly structured environment to help at-risk youth develop the skills and self-confidence they need to succeed. Among her honors: She was selected to carry the U.S. flag into graduation as a member of the color guard.“

I kept looking at all the families there thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” she said Friday during an interview accompanied by her mother, Sheila Blanton-Cole, and her brother Ryder. “I had imagined graduating so many times, but when it finally came, I thought it was a dream. Now that I’m home I can’t believe I finished the program.”

But finish she did, and with a flurry that's almost unmatched, said Ron Carroll, Youth Challenge marketing coordinator.

Carroll said Cole is one of only two cadets he knows of who has completed 22 weeks at the academy without any infractions. To date, 2,621 cadets have graduated since the academy was established in 1999.

“That is almost unheard of,” Carroll said. “Every day she had to be center focused, locked on and respectful. If you have a bad day, you’ll get an infraction. It speaks volumes about her character" that she finished with none.

Blanton-Cole said that before her daughter entered the academy in July, she “had become a recluse,” spending all her time after school in her room alone in front of her computer screen, with no friends and little to say to family members.

“I wasn’t confident enough to do anything,” Sam Cole recalled of the months before she attended the Dillon-based program, which is on the campus of UM Western. “I was really depressed and I was isolated from everything, even my own family.”

“But after graduation, I didn’t want to leave. I was afraid of falling back,” she said with a smile that comes easily nowadays. “I made my mark there.”

To call life at the academy regimented is an understatement. Cole said she and her fellow cadets were awakened each morning at 5:30. They'd quickly put on their uniforms and set about cleaning the common areas before breakfast, which they ate in silence.

They’d do more cleaning and then crack open their textbooks. Following a silent lunch, they’d do more classroom work and then an hour of exercise just before dinner.

During down time, cadre instructors would “help us with what we need to work through mentally,” she said. Some evenings included a diversion, such as a movie, before lights out at 9:30 p.m.

“It’s a predictable schedule,” she said, crediting the structure and the mentoring she received as significant contributors to her academic outcomes — success on the HiSET (GED) test and a scholarship to help her study at UM Western.

“Today I don’t see myself as the same person” who entered the academy over the summer, Cole said.

“Her smile lights up the room and she exudes confidence,” Carroll said. “She smiles even during intense moments. I go around taking photos for our social media platforms, and in every photo of Cadet Cole there’s a smile on her face. I think that’s a mark of her character, one that will take her far in life. She has this internal mechanism to work well under pressure.”

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