For the past 22 weeks, the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, or ECBC, hosted a group of seven cadets from the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, or FCA, an education program for at-risk youth.
Begun in 1993 by the Maryland National Guard, the FCA provides challenged youth ages 16 to 18 with academic classes, personalized mentorship, and career guidance.
During the 22-week residency program, the ChalleNGE cadets live at Aberdeen Proving Ground. They wake up 5 a.m. and go to bed 9:30 p.m. each day. In between, they attend classes, learn new skills and perform public service tasks. The goal of the program is to instill a sense of responsibility and discipline in the cadets, most of whom earn their GEDs at the end of the program.
A vital element of the curriculum is the academy’s mentor program, which pairs students with volunteers, many of whom are APG employees, who provide guidance, advice, and a shoulder to lean on over the course of the program and beyond.
Damon Smith and Jansen Robinson, of the ECBC security office, served as mentors to some of the cadets who worked with ECBC personnel during their stay at APG.
“I saw young kids in the street acting foolish, and I got mad,” Smith said about the reason he joined the program as a mentor. “But instead of getting mad, why don’t I take that energy and turn it around to do some good?”
Smith said he’s put a lot of passion into the program and he is hoping to leave an impact on the youth.
“I worked hands-on with these guys, and I’m very protective of them,” Smith said. “I really put a lot of time and effort into this because I want to make sure these guys do well and that they pass their tests.”
The cadets say they’ve benefited from the career advice and mentorship, as well as the discipline. They graduated from the program Dec. 6, and they’re ready to go back and make the most of a second chance.
Damion Mack, 17, said he joined the program after struggling in school.
“I wasn’t doing very good in school; I failed twice,” he said, adding that school wasn’t always his top priority.
He said he was grateful for a second chance.
“Freestate is giving me the chance to bounce back from my mistakes,” he said, adding that the program improved his discipline, work ethic, and time management.
“I’ve learned how to be more responsible and manage my time more wisely. You have to work hard and make sacrifices to get where you need to be in life.”
Zack McKenzie, 18, said FCA has given him new direction.
“I just felt like there was no direction in my life,” he said. “I thought this would help me find direction, and it has. This program really helped me figure out what I’m going to do with my life and help me get to where I’m trying to go.”
For McKenzie, that means working in law enforcement.
“Being a police officer just seems right for me,” he said.
Not only do the students take standard academic courses, they also gain experience in the trades.
“Some of them go to trades, which can be culinary, welding, or A+, which is an IT program,” said FCA supervisor Karilynn Dunmeyer.
Through those opportunities, Mack found a career path to pursue after graduation.
“They put me in a welding trade, and that’s what I’m considering after I graduate,” Mack said, explaining that he enjoys the work. “Freestate is really helping me by giving me certain skills that I need to do well in life and build a strong future.”
Around 150 students enroll in FCA annually, and about 110 graduate from the program, said Dunmeyer — a success rate of roughly 70 percent.
Following graduation, the students and their mentors enter into a 12-month post-residency phase, during which the academy tracks the students to gauge their success.
“We try to have a team effort between the cadets and their mentors,” Dunmeyer. “They meet regularly to see if they’re meeting the goals that they set for themselves, and then they report back to the academy. We look at what they’re doing and we think about how we can assist them in reaching their goals.”
Robinson said he saw a little bit of himself in the students and that inspired him to want to do more. He said he hopes the time he and Smith spend working with the students helps them establish a plan for the future.
“We wanted to be able to enrich their lives,” he said. “They have something with them now, and I’d like to see them go from here to something, and have a plan to better their lives. What Damon and I have been doing is trying to get them to think about what happens after this.”
The impact that APG and its employees are having on the lives of academy students is a point of pride for APG Senior Commander Maj. Gen. Randy S. Taylor.
“Freestate ChalleNGe Academy is a shining example of the Army giving back to our community and our at-risk youth,” Taylor said. “I am extremely proud not only of the hope and opportunity Freestate provides youth wanting a second chance at becoming productive citizens and the dedication shown to the program by the workforce of Aberdeen Proving Ground, but of those students who accept the challenge to take control of their lives and right a course towards a brighter tomorrow. The future of our country and our Army depends on the next generation of Americans who share positive values, who find satisfaction in serving their fellow citizens, and who understand our shared responsibility to improve and pass on to the next generation our inheritance of liberty, equality, and justice. That’s all tied to what we call, Army Strong!”
Toward the end of the 22-week program, the class had the opportunity to speak with ECBC Director Dr. Eric Moore, who related his early life and upbringing to the students and encouraged them to make the most of their second chance.
“When you grow up in America — in a rural environment or an urban environment, it doesn’t matter — there’s always trouble waiting for you,” Moore said. “We make mistakes, but it doesn’t have to define you or limit you. You have to think about where you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to achieve, and you have to focus on that.”
Moore challenged Mack to not only be a professional welder, but to own a welding company.
“Just don’t forget the little guy, and remember to pay it forward when you get to the top,” Moore told the students.
For more information about ECBC, visit https://www.ecbc.army.mil/.