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Chad Pata

Where Hope Is Reborn

A last chance for many at-risk youths, the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy’s 22-week program, including military-style discipline and order, is turning around the lives of hundreds of young adults. Here, cadets salute at the Capitol. Inset photo: cadets Theresa Tautolo (left) and Daralyn Strong with director Rick Campbell at the Kalaeloa facility

Often a last chance for at-risk kids, the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy has been restoring hope and changing young lives for 18 years

While bureaucrats and union leaders sit around the Capitol talking about helping out Hawaii’s kids, the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy is taking action.

Nestled in Kalaeloa between the new Tamura’s and Podium Raceway, this alternative school has graduated more than 3,000 at-risk youths over the past 18 years, taking those who thought they had no hope and imbueing them with the skills and confidence to go forth in the world.

The program is headed by former Kamehameha Schools instructor Rick Campbell, who spent half of his 31 years at Kamehameha working with at-risk youths, and saw this as a way of giving back.

“When I was young, I would have been considered an at-risk kid,” says Campbell, who joined the program in 2005. “We are an alternative to regular school – regular school is where we think kids should be. We just offer something where, if they are not going to go to school, this is another way to do it.”

The program consists of 22 intense weeks as a resident of the program, followed by 12 months of follow-up. The kids eat, sleep and live at the compound, focused only on improving themselves. There are no cell phones, computers or television, and any communication with the outside world is done through letters. Their routine is quasi-military, meaning that they use military structure to train the kids for life.

Days start at 5 a.m., with PT (physical training) and formation happening before the sun has even crested Diamond Head. Six instructors teach the 100 kids in the program, a GED curriculum that when completed at the end of the 22 weeks will net them a high school diploma from Waipahu Community School for Adults. Despite being a part of the National Guard, the academy does not come with a military commitment afterward, but rather a commitment to bettering themselves.

“What we expect from them is a commitment to change,” says Campbell. “If they are willing to adapt to the program we can help them get through what they need to get through. Basically it is about changing their attitudes about school and their lives in general. Many feel there is no hope, some of them have dropped out in seventh grade.”

One such cadet is the COT (commander of the troops) Maryanne Leitu, a former student at Leilehua High who lost her way after tragedy struck her family.

“I got off track after my father passed away, things started getting out of hand,” says Leitu, who hopes to go on to KCC and study business management upon completion of the program. “We were struggling and I made a lot of bad decisions, which led me to Youth Challenge. I wanted to come here because I wanted to fix my mistakes and prove to my mom that I am not a mess-up. I want to get my diploma, and I knew this might be my last chance to graduate.”

In her first four months in the program she has learned teamwork, discipline and perhaps most importantly, an appreciation for what she has.

“Before I came in here I was really bad – life was bad, I really didn’t care about anything,” says Leitu, who now dreams of owning her own clothing store. “After coming here and going through the first 16 weeks, when I went home on my first pass I appreciated so many things about life and my family. It was rewarding to feel the change in me. It really does change the lives of the cadets.”

For some, it is not tragedy that put them at risk, but just a change of location. The 17-year-old Robertson twins, Sierra and Keanu, were born and raised in Louisiana before their mother brought them back to her home state two years ago and enrolled them in Waipahu High School. Once here, both struggled with the changes in culture and began to act out.

“My issue was I didn’t like my school. I didn’t feel comfortable or secure, so I started skipping school a lot,” says Sierra, who dreams of becoming an actress after graduation. “I would just stay on the bus and go to the mall and places I really shouldn’t be. I did a lot of bad stuff, I don’t want to say all of it. But I was failing in school and I wanted to graduate on time.”

Her brother found his own trouble with a different set of friends, and rather than give up, their mother found the academy as a way to salvage her teens’ lives.

“I have seen my discipline level improve, and it allowed me to step back from everything and put real life into perspective,” says Keanu, who is still weighing his options for after graduation. “Being away from everybody and all the peer pressure, and you get to see yourself for who you really are, and I have definitely changed. I feel like a better person.”

Seeing the changes in himself was important, but seeing everyone else staying the same really struck a chord with Sierra.

“One thing I realized from Youth Challenge was when I went home and got on the Internet on my first pass,” she recalls. “I realized that none of my friends were doing anything that important, and I am in here actually doing something. I wasn’t missing out on anything.”

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