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Kuchler, Kenneth
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The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is known to guide youth to see clearer options for the future, and obtain the self-confidence to have dreams and reach for them. Alyssa Gee, from Stevensville, graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, Dec. 17.

Gee said it was a choice she made so she could graduate with her fellow Yellow Jackets and will participate in the Stevensville High School graduation ceremony in June. Gee said that last spring when she realized she would not have enough credits to graduate with her classmates she asked her school counselor for suggestions. "He suggested the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, Job Corps or being a super senior," Gee said. "I’m really glad I made this choice. It was very hard but very good."

Montana Youth Challenge Academy is a 22-week residential academic-based program located in Dillon. Students spend the first two weeks in the armory and the following 20 weeks on the campus of the University of Montana-Western. The Academy works with youth ages 16-18 to develop academic and life skills for success.

During her stay at the academy, Gee passed the High School Equivalency exam HiSET (formerly GED), earned college credits and Certified Nursing Assistant credentials. She was also Senior Cadet, platoon Sergeant and earned leadership awards.

"She did very, very well," said Ron Carroll, MYCA marketing coordinator. "She won several awards and was a leader at Challenge. Senior Cadet is the highest level and she was nominated for Cadet of the Month twice. She was the best of the best, twice, against fierce competition."

Gee said she knew the program would be tightly structured and military-based. She said the first two weeks were the toughest with drills, physical training and no contact with family and friends. After 11 days, the cadets moved onto the campus. The entire program lasted five and a half months.

"It was a good experience that helped me with self-confidence and realizing I could be more and do more with my life," Gee said. "It showed me what paths were available to me. I am more independent now. I like to get up and go and get stuff done. I’m more self-motivated and am going out and doing stuff."

Gee said she learned to be a leader at MYCA. "To be a good leader you have to be assertive, but not too assertive or mean," she said. "It was cool to be in a leadership position and know I can apply that to real life. I can be more of a leader and not a follower. I can take action." Carroll said Gee was a good leader because she modeled good behavior. "She went the entire 22 weeks with only two infractions, that’s pretty unheard of," he said. "Her peers respected her because she exemplified that role. She modeled good behavior. That’s the attribute of a good leader."

Each graduate from MYCA participates in a mentor program for the following year. Some mentors are "cold matches", local volunteers matched with random students. "In my case Elizabeth Kennard has been a family friend for quite a while," Gee said. "I just always really liked her and figured she would be a good pick because she is always really blunt. She tells it like it is and is not a pushover. She is real with what needs to be done in my life to help me succeed."

Carroll called the volunteer mentors the "backbone" of Montana Youth Challenge. He said there are other great programs that work with youth but once they graduate they are on their own. "We have 12-month mentoring and then we check to see where the graduates are four years later," he said. "Part of our success is we help the youth to create a placement plan, we call the P-RAP or post-residential action plan. That’s where the mentor is so valuable. They pick up where we leave off on graduation day."

Carroll said mentors are there to help continue to resource as the graduates execute their placement plan. "We want them just as placed in 12 months as they are right now on graduation day," he said. "We’ve had high placement rates, and are pretty successful thanks to mentor volunteers. They are a resource, a coach and all of our staff rolled into one person."

Gee has a job in Bonner and is moving to Missoula. She plans to take classes at the University of Montana to major in English and minor in Art. She will be back in June to participate in the Stevensville High School graduation ceremony thanks to MYCA. "It was a hard but rewarding experience that I would recommend," Gee said. "It was definitely a hard journey but one that was really rewarding."

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy was established in September 1999 and is recruiting for the 36th class beginning Jan. 17. They teach at-risk youth the skills and abilities to be productive citizens by focusing on physical fitness, academic excellence, leadership, citizenship, service, life skills, job skills, health and hygiene. The academy is nearly cost-free to participants and their families thanks to funding from Montana and the federal government.

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