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Kuchler, Kenneth
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Youth Challenge Academy teens help food bank get Thanksgiving dinner to thousands.

By JORDON NIEDERMEIER jniedermeier@billingsgazette.com

A motivated group of young people from Montana Youth Challenge Academy chipped in Monday to help get groceries home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Billings Food Bank began distributing supplies for more than 2,000 Thanksgiving dinners Monday. The demand ahead of the holiday means more food and more volunteer help is needed. While food drives and initiatives from Billings businesses and organizations provided all the fixings for citywide feasts, 10 cadets volunteered at the Billings Food Bank for four hours during their only trip home.

Montana Youth Challenge is one of 32 academies across the country affiliated with the National Guard. Although described as quasi-military, the academy does not require any commitment to military service and is not used as a recruiting tool. The cadets who volunteered are enrolled in the 22-week residency program based in Dillon. Cadets are at-risk youth ages 16 to 18 who may have fallen behind in school or need help with self-confidence and discipline.

Their help couldn’t have come at a better time, said Sheryle Shandy, Billings Food Bank’s executive director. Shandy said on the busiest days of the year the food bank serves 300 to 400 people. But ahead of Thanksgiving it will distribute groceries to about 2,200 people. "We’ll see about 700 people a day through Wednesday," she said. "What’s really helpful is to have kids who can lift, help people to their car and bring the cart back."

Raquel Hernandez is a 16-year-old cadet from Billings who helped food bank patrons get groceries to their cars on Monday. She plans on returning to high school after MYC graduation and wants to join the United States Air Force after receiving her diploma. Hernandez said she didn’t notice changes in herself since starting the program in July, but in the past month others have started to comment on her transformation. She earned a home pass for the week of Thanksgiving, and it will be her first exposure to an old environment since July.

"People are all the same here, and I’ve changed a lot," she said. "I have more motivation than I did before the program." Hernandez said she was happy to work at the Billings Food Bank for the day. She found gratification in thinking of others and serving her community.Top of FormBottom of Form

This is the first official Montana Youth Challenge Academy service project to take place in Billings despite a large number of cadets hailing from Yellowstone County, said Michelle Nelon, MYC post-residential supervisor. In addition to physical and academic challenges, the program requires cadets complete 40 hours of community service. Most cadets volunteer even more, averaging 53 hours. "The community of Dillon loves us. They really do because we do a ton of community service," Nelon said.

The cadets are also required to find "placement" after graduating with their high school equivalency certificate. That means either returning to high school to receive a diploma, applying to college, getting a job or joining the military. Cadets use volunteer experiences to build their work skills and their resumes to help in their transition. "So many folks don’t know this program exists as a resource if they need a different form of education, and it’s free," Nelon said.

An additional 1,000 meals are being prepared this week at the food bank by Chefs and Cooks of Montana and ladies enrolled in the culinary program at Passages Women’s Prerelease Program. The food will be served on Thanksgiving Day at Montana Rescue Mission.

 

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