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Youth Challenge, Pt. 1: Journey of Redemption


Over the years, we’ve brought you many stories involving the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program. You may have even seen or met some of the cadets at events around our area.

But what we haven’t been able to bring you is the journey these teens take from the start of the program to graduation — until now.

In the first part of our four-part series, we meet several Central Oregon teens on day one of the five-month program.

On an early January morning this year, a classroom inside the Youth Challenge building on Dodds Road east of Bend is filled with parents and their teenage sons.

Program Director Dan Radabaugh tells them what to expect.

?It’s an intervention program,? says Radabaugh. ?It targets 16 to 18-year-old dropouts and those kids who are failing in the traditional high school environment and not likely to graduate on time. We bring them in and give them the opportunity to get their high school education back on track.?

The school is voluntary and guided by military principles structures and discipline. Make no mistake though, it’s not a boot camp. This is a place where kids can get school credits, their GED and high school diploma, plus gain life skills.

Still, back at the introduction, 18-year-old Anthony Reed of Redmond is nervous.

?There are some butterflies in my stomach, I guess,” Reed says. ?I know I can do it, it’s just the fact that I’m going to be leaving everything I know for five months.?

Three years ago, you wouldn’t have predicated he would be here. After his family moved from Portland, though, Anthony says he became resentful toward his new surroundings. He got into fights, tried drugs and stopped caring about school.

?I realized when it was too late,? Reed recalls. ?Like the end of my junior year, I thought, ‘Wow, you know, I really screwed up high school. It’s almost over and I really need a lot of credits.'”

Jared Hettick, 17, of Culver also stopped caring about school, but he says it was more out of arrogance than anything else.

?I thought I could skate by and my teachers would just let me go, and it doesn’t work like that,? Hettick said.

Jared’s mother, Traci Sauls, remembers, ?For a whole year he pretty much failed all his classes and there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about.”.

Also in the crowd, waiting nervously to start the program, is 16-year-old Frank Ayson of LaPine. Frank is a teen of few words on day one. When he talks about some of the problems he’s had up to this point, though, those few words say a lot.

?Fire setting, drugs, smoking, cutting,? Frank says.

I ask him if that means cutting himself. He answers, ?Yeah.?

Later that morning, the same room once filled with teenage boys, fills with teenage girls and their parents.

One of them is 19-year-old Nicole Eytchison of Bend.

?My biggest thing is participation,? Eytchison says. ?I don’t participate in anything.?

Nicole hasn’t been in real trouble before, but she lacks confidence, and that’s led to tough times in school.

?I want to believe in myself,? Eytchison says. ?I want to have the motivation to go out and get a job.?

It would be easy for 18-year-old Mele Carson of Prineville to not believe in herself.

Her mother struggled with drug abuse, and Mele was forced to move around several times never really developing stability anywhere, until she started living with her grandfather.

?It’s surprising how bright and how positive she is after all the things she’s been through,? her grandfather, Robert Carson, says. ?I think she’s probably one of the most bravest kids I’ve ever met.”

Her school work, however, suffered in the process of moving around. And she wants to right that wrong.

?Maybe get a breath of new life, because living the way I was living, just living that over and over — it almost drove me nuts,? Mele says.

Now it’s time for these teens to say goodbye to everything they know.

?Day one is very intense, to say the least,? Radabaugh said.

The teens are hastily ushered from the classroom into a gymnasium by the sounds of yelling and orders.

They are now cadets, and they quickly realize they’re no longer in control.

“There is a lot of yelling the first few weeks,? Radabaugh said. ?We do that intentionally, because we want to get their attention. We want them to comply with our direction. We want them to want to go to school in week three.?

The next two weeks will greatly challenge these 150 plus cadets — and some might not make it.

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