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Kuchler, Kenneth
/ Categories: Cadets

Montana Youth Challenge Academy graduate ready for future.

By Katie Fairbanks - Chronicle Staff Writer

At 15 years old, Cassie Holt hated the idea of attending Montana’s highly structured youth academy.

"I did not like what I heard at all," she said.

Two years later, the 17-year-old’s attitude has completely changed. The Belgrade teen graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy’s 32nd class last weekend.

"It’s probably the best program I could’ve gone to," she said. "It helped me a lot."

The academy is a 17-month voluntary program that helps at-risk youth develop skills to be productive citizens. The academy has been open since 1999 and is located in Dillon on the University of Montana-Western campus.

The program has two sessions per year and admits up to 100 participants per session. Admissions coordinator Chelsey Hutchison met with Holt when she was 15 and has witnessed her progress ever since. "She’s one of our good ones," Hutchison said. "We’re proud of the accomplishments she’s made."

Holt earned many awards during her time at the academy. She won three physical fitness awards as well as the academy’s commandant award. Holt was also part of the academy’s color guard. Holt also held various leadership positions outside the regular requirements. She was Cadet of the Month in March, which led to the senior cadet position she held until graduation. Holt was also appointed warrants officer, a permanent leadership position. Holt said being a leader helped her progress.

"I’m not as shy," she said. "It taught me to put the foot down."

The program is split into a 22-week residential phase and a 12 month post-residential mentoring phase. Hutchison said the structure of the program quickly brings out change in the cadets.

"It’s a very short amount of time for them to accomplish what they do," said Hutchison. "It’s hard but it can be the most worthwhile thing many of them do for themselves. The residential phase includes an 11-day acclimation period, which Holt said was one of the toughest parts of the academy. "It’s hard to get up at 5:30 in the morning and be standing at attention," she said. "It’s hard living with 25 other girls." Despite the difficulties, the teen said she made wonderful friends at the academy.

"You make the best friendships because you do everything together," she said. The program focuses on the physical, educational and emotional needs of participants. It aims to help graduates do what they want with their futures, Hutchison said. Many participants return to high school after the program, others apply to college or enter the workforce. Holt plans to join Job Corps, a free education and technical skill program, to earn a high school diploma and a natural resources job skill.

"I like being in nature and being muddy and gross," she said. "It’s something I know will make me happy." Looking at her future beyond Job Corps, Holt said she has always wanted to be a nurse. "I always wanted to help others," she said, "and Montana Youth Challenge has helped me get further in my dream."

Before leaving for Job Corps, Holt plans to spend time in Belgrade hanging out with friends and helping her foster mom around the house.

"I have a plan, I have a future," she said. "I got what I wanted."

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