By Levi C. Flinn Big Horn County News Crow Agency’s
Josiah Hugs was 17 when his daughter Ava was born. Knowing things were and would be tough on the path he had chosen, Hugs determined he needed to rise up and make a positive change for the sake of their lives.
"Growing up, it was kind of rough," Hugs said. "I grew up a little too fast and it didn’t hit me until this year, and I wanted to make a change in my life."
After a spark of motivation and outreach by recruiter Cole Mack and Hugs’ mother Sherri, he sealed his destiny by signing up for Class 35 of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy – just before the last possible signup day. If Hugs had not enlisted that day, he would have become ineligible by the beginning of the next cycle, as he would have surpassed the age limit.
"I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself before I went to this program," Hugs said. "I was scared to go out into public and do anything. Going to this program opened up my eyes and helped me see all the opportunities of what I can do in my life."
Hugs’ description of his academy experiences speaks of a life-saving adventure that redirected his focus to his family and their future.
"I’m very happy for the program and what it has done for his life," said Sherri Hugs. "He was headed on the road of destruction before he joined.
"It has done a lot for him, his attitude and just his total being," she continued. "I’m really thankful for this program and I recommend it to other youth at risk."
Hugs, 19, now dedicates his time to earning full custody of his 1-yearold daughter, giving thanks and credit to the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.
After 22 weeks of his personal life-changing escapade, the recent MYCA graduate works to influence local youth, and inspire them to join the program and "rise up" for themselves.
Excelling through challenges
"He did very, very well in the academy," said Marketing Coordinator Ron Carroll. "He won many accolades. I saw him enough to watch him flourish and thrive every week, ultimately landing a leadership position."
"I’ve seen 24 classes graduate and he was every bit of a leader that I’ve ever seen. He has a special way of inspiring his peers," Carroll continued. "I watched the way they would follow his lead and not because of the rank on his hat, but because they believed in him, that he knew the way to success."
Identifying initial slight weaknesses in leadership, followership and physical fitness, Hugs didn’t start the program with plans on taking on leadership roles and earning his highly regarded accolades.
"I didn’t really get along with too many people when I got there," Hugs said, "and I knew I had to be with them for a few months, so I had to work on that."
"[The academy] helped me out a lot," he continued. "When I got there, I weighed 176 pounds, when I left, I weighed 210 and I just gained a lot of muscle from being there."
Hugs even managed to double the required 40 hours of service to the community, logging more than 85 hours by the end of the program.
"To me, that says a lot about an individual," Carroll said. "He strived for excellence, and that’s a lot of what we hope, is that they learn to give back to their community."
Before joining the academy, Hugs identified himself as "always nervous" and afraid to be in front of a big crowd. According to Hugs, the academy made him step out of his comfort zone, which helped him gain confidence in himself.
After being pushed to work hard, Hugs joined the Color Guard, where he presented colors throughout Montana. These presentations included the renaming of the Great Falls Armory ceremony, where he met prominent Montana leaders and individuals, promoting his sense of self-empowerment.
Hugs also applied for permanent leadership, earning the rank of first sergeant.
"I started liking to get out of my comfort zone," Hugs said. "It made me feel good about myself and it made me feel more confident about everything I do now."
Hearing Hugs say that he used to be nervous in public brought out a short laugh from Carroll.
"He stood in front of his 82 peers, three times a day in formation as a company first sergeant, which is the highest enlisted rank," said Carroll. "He was also elected secretary of an organization where he talked in front of people including military personnel, the college chancellor and others, which is a remarkable change."
"I didn’t expect any of this at all, but I like to lead by example," Hugs said. "I was usually the quiet one out of my whole platoon, so being in these positions was unexpected."
Hugs graduated in December with Class 35 as a Senior Cadet, First Sergeant, a nominee for Cadet of the Month, and an Iron and National Cadet, awarded for physical fitness. Hugs also received awards for Outstanding Color Guard, JMG Speech, Company Leadership and Outstanding Achievement.
"It was really hard to let go of, it made me want to never give up again. I’m going to keep pushing forward," said Hugs. "It gave me a lot of confidence that I never really had in myself."
He now works toward a Navy career, considering options of a Navy Seabee or an Underwater Welder.
"If I could go to the academy again, I would," Hugs said. "I know how it feels when you want to give up and when you’re homesick. All we have to do is take it day-by-day and make it to that next haircut. It’s a mental challenge. Just remember why you came here – you came here because nothing at home will ever change, you came here to change yourself. You just have to keep pushing forward and do what you’re told. Get up 10 minutes early in the morning and tie your boots a little tighter."
"It’s not too late to make a change. I was probably one of the worst ones, but I was able to do it," he continued. "I made my mom proud and it would be nice to let everyone know that Montana Youth Challenge Academy is a life-changing experience. I wish everybody could go through that."