Teen’s life changed through MT Youth Challenge Academy
By Chris Deverell / Sunday, July 15, 2018
Ryar Garpestad takes part in a rappelling course at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. Garpestad was one of 113 graduates from the Academy this year, the largest class that the MYC has had since it started in 1999.
The sign was written as a joke. "Puke here" was placed in the midst of the extensive obstacle course which served as the physical release for members of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon. It was a fitting bit of humor for a grueling course which itself served as an appropriate metaphor on the challenges cadets faced in the program, and cadet Ryar Garpestad loved it.
Established in 1999, the MYC Academy is an intensive 22-week program designed for at-risk youth who are looking to develop the skills and confidence to get their lives back on track. Through a combination of training that focuses on mental, physical and educational needs, the program uses a quasi-military approach with guidance from the National Guard to drill and hone skills that the cadets, as the participants are known, will use for the rest of their lives.
This year, the academy graduated its largest class of all time. There were 113 cadets, all aged 16 to 18, all who had either left high school or never graduated or never received a HiSET diploma. Among them, Ryar Garpestad of Glendive, the first from the community in several years, according to MYC Academy Outreach Coordinator Ron Carroll.
For Garpestad, the program was an opportunity for him to make a change in his life. Having left Dawson County High School during his sophomore year, he knew a change was needed, and felt that MYC could provide it. There were some expectations for what the program would have in store, he said, but nothing that could have truly prepared him.
"The first 11 days were a nightmare," Garpestad said. "I was not used to having hair that short, everyone got a buzzcut, and I was not used to being stuck around 103 other guys all the time."
While Carroll stressed that the Academy is not a bootcamp-type program as so many people often refer to it, it does borrow heavily in terms of its structure and organization from the National Guard, and bunking up with several other members of the program in the dorms of the University of Montana Western is part of that structure.
As far as privacy goes in those kinds of situations, Garpestad said, "However much personal space you got depended on how much personal space the other people gave you."
Still, Garpestad managed to stick it out. The same can’t be said for all of his peers, because while the program managed to graduate 113 cadets, it started with 146, as 33 cadets dropped out from the program at some point along the way.
That sort of attrition is normal, Carroll said, but it only helps emphasize Garpestad’s success in the program, especially considering that by the end of his time he achieved the highest rank of senior cadet, complete with some of the additional privileges it afforded.
Getting there took time, Garpestad said, but after about a month into the program, he said he was used to the routine. That did not mean that every day went perfectly though, there were doubts at times, but still, Garpestad persisted.
"At the very beginning and at the end I had some doubts," Garpestad said. "In the beginning it took until eventually I was settled in, but at the end, however, well I gotta be honest, I was just anxious to graduate and get out of there."
While reflecting on his favorite part of the program, Garpestad said that the confidence, or obstacle, course was among the things he enjoyed the most, but added that the program offered a well-rounded curriculum in all aspects of life.
In addition to rigorous physical exercises, cadets also attend classes much like they would in school, with all the similar subject matters that they would normally take in pursuit of a high school diploma.
By the end of the program, cadets can choose to either return to their high school to pursue the diploma there, or, if they are eligible, they can receive their HiSET diploma, equivalent to a GED. Roughly, a quarter of the cadets choose to return to their schools, though in his case, Garpestad chose to earn his HiSET.
The program doesn’t just end once the cadet is out of the residential course. Following graduation, Garpestad joined the second phase of the program, which sees him return home to take part in an ongoing relationship with a mentor of his choice. In his case, Garpestad chose an uncle who lives in Great Falls to serve as his mentor.
The mentorship program is one of several things that helps set MYC apart from other similar programs, according to Carroll, and offers cadets support beyond their residential program time. "A lot of programs do great things during the residential phase, but there’s no follow up," Carroll said. "We continue to follow up for the entire year after. That’s how we measure our long-term success."
With his HiSET degree in hand, Garpestad has been looking forward to the future, and what plans he has in mind for himself. He has plans in mind to attend the Pima Medical Institute, a veterinary technician program offered by UMW, joking that, "I’m better with animals than I am with people."
He also is looking forward to the opportunity that attending Pima would provide in allowing him to explore the parts of UMW and Dillon that he wasn’t able to see while in the Academy.
Until then, Garpestad is living at home with his parents, helping out on the family farm as he used to before, though with more determination and purpose in his step than he previously had he said. He admitted to sleeping in through his alarm from time to time, one of the small things he’s been able to enjoy since leaving the 5:30 a.m. wake up calls at MYC, but otherwise has seen a significant transformation in himself from the person he used to be before joining the Academy.
"I’m not sleeping all day, I’m not just eating junk food all day," Garpestad said, adding that who he is now is, "Way, way better than before."
"We continue to follow up for the entire year after. That’s how we measure our long term success/"
Reach Chris Deverell at firstname.lastname@example.org.