Troubled teens take to life’s challenges

Cadet on Swing

The rope course at the Cowboy ChalleNGe Academy is part fun, part educational as cadets regain their self-confidence that they can reach new heights.  (photo by Jack Siebold)

Making a mistake our two, or even three, is all part of growing up.  Problem is … by the time teens realize the errors of their way, it can be too late to recover.

“It’s crazy how easy it is to mess up.  It’s really, really easy to go down the wrong road and really hard to go down the right road,” 17-year-old Kameron Walker of Rock Springs, Wyo., said.

That’s where the Wyoming National Guard’s Cowboy ChalleNGe Academy comes in.  It is a program designed to help 16- to 18-year-old teens get on the winning side of life.

Cadet Kameron Walker

Walker, a cadet in the 16th academy class, knew he was beginning to live on borrowed time.  “I got in trouble with the law and they gave me this option … it’s either here or jail.  They gave me a choice.  I wasn’t optimistic about it.  I just kind of figured I’d get it over with.”

Walker is not alone in the realization he was running out of life options.

“For the past six or seven years I’ve been on and off probation, in trouble with the law,” 18-year-old Justin Carreras, Moorcroft, Wyo., explained.  “Last year I got in trouble again and they finally decided to throw me in jail.  I could stay in jail a couple of years, have some big fines or come to this place, finish it out and stay out of trouble.”

Carreras and Walker had run–ins with the law, forcing them to make their life–altering decisions to attend the five and a half month academy.   But that’s not the only reason teens end up in the academy.

Cadet Chloe Ruby hits her stride in the rope course device called the flying squirrel. (photo by Jack Siebold)

For Cadet Chloe Ruby of Gillette, the academy is her sanctuary from domestic strife.  “I had a really tough time at home,” she said.  “I got married at 16.  My husband was 20, he was abusive.  I just didn’t want to live that life anymore.  So I came here.”

Here is Camp Guernsey where a cadre of Guard soldiers guides the teens in recovering from bad life choices.  After a two-week initiation phase, where teens have to prove they have the “courage to change,” they enter the residency program that includes academics and courses in leadership, civic duty and yes … physical fitness.

It isn’t easy going from a lifestyle where the teen can do just about anything at any time … to a regimented environment.  “I had no idea what to think my first night here.  Not a very good impression.  Five and a half months of this?  Maybe I shouldn’t have signed up for this Cadet Tyson Christensen, Cody, Wyo., said.

Sgt. Shannon Peterson connects with cadets after trying one of the rope course events. (photo by Jack Siebold)

“I’ve seen this class from the very beginning,” Sgt. Shannon Peterson said. “I was here there very first day.  Dried a lot of tears, and we’ve been through a lot of talk sessions with Sergeant Peterson but I’m really proud of them.  They’ve done an excellent job and I hope they do well after the program.”

That job includes gaining their self–confidence to reach new heights.  “I didn’t really have the perspective to see what I was getting myself into,” Christensen said.  “The program took me up so I could look at my life from a different angle and I was able to figure out I was going the wrong way.”

One of the most important life lessons the cadets figured out was that quitting is not an option.

Sticking with it, however, isn’t always easy, Carreras explained.  “The first couple of days I wanted to leave.  I just about walked out the door.  A bunch of the sergeants kept saying ‘Give me a minute, give me another hour.  Give me another day.’  And I did,” Carreras said.

That extra minute or day was enough time for Carreras to realize how far he came in half a year.  “I started learning a lot more about how life’s going to be outside here, learning a lot more self–discipline, a lot more respect,” he said.

“For me it’s kind of a pride thing, I’m not quitting” Christensen echoed.  But before he arrived at Camp Guernsey?  “Oh yeah, in school I would cut classes.   I would just give up.  A teacher would hand me a test, I’d just put my name on it and turn it in, maybe circle a couple of answers to make it look like I kind of tried a little bit.  I was a big quitter,” he said. “Now?  No!  Big difference for me.”

A cadet takes off in one direction while a team pulls in another, yanking him into the air. Teens learn not only self-confidence but also to depend on each other at the Cowboy ChalleNGe Academy. (photo by Jack Siebold)

“It makes me proud to see them go on and do better things,” Peterson said.  “I’ve already a couple of kids come back and they’re so excited to share that they’ve gotten into college; they’ve gotten a great job.  It makes me feel like we’re doing our job, doing our part in helping these kids get to where they need to be.”

This cadet class graduates June 8 with a ceremony in the Douglas, Wyo. high school.

While the Cowboy ChalleNGe is a Wyoming National Guard program, there are cadets from other states, South Dakota among them.  That’s because the Dakotas and Nebraska do not have similar programs.

Applications for the next class beginning July 7 are due by June 2.  You can click here to see how to apply for the academy.

About Jack Siebold

Jack Siebold began his journalism career in 1973 as a sports reporter for a weekly military newspaper at Keesler AFB, Miss. This was followed by a stint as a reporter at another military paper in Texas; then jobs as a weekly newspaper editor in Turkey, Italy and England. Jack finally landed in South Dakota to finish his military journalism career at Ellsworth AFB. Jack shifted to broadcast news when he retired from the military in 1993 and was hired by KOTA TV News as the assignment editor. In 19 years with KOTA, Jack was the assignment editor, general assignment reporter, senior reporter, a producer and finally assistant news director before retiring in 2012. After a short retirement (spent working at Black Hills Harley-Davidson due to his love of motorcycles) Jack returned to KOTA as the online media specialist for MyTown. Jack’s journalism honors include two awards from the Associated Press for investigative reporting and a documentary series. During his military career, he earned 13 awards for editorial, news and sports writing; photojournalism and newspaper management. During the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Jack was assigned to the Central Command public affairs staff where he helped develop plans, policies and procedures as well as providing guidance for public affairs officers in the Persian Gulf Theater. Jack’s military honors include the Bronze Star for service in the Persian Gulf War; two Meritorious Service Medals, three Commendation Medals, Achievement Medal, Liberation of Kuwait Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, and two National Defense Medals; the Air Force Public Affairs Outstanding Senior NCO for 1992. Jack and his wife Margaret (a Rapid City special education teacher) spend as much time as they can on their Harley, on the open road.

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