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NEWS | Aug. 10, 2023

Transforming Lives: Kentucky Youth ChalleNGe Program empowers the next generation

By Milt Spalding, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

On a cold January morning, 57 young men were facing possibly the most significant challenge they had met in their lives thus far. They were entering the Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy at Fort Knox, all from varying backgrounds and for varying reasons.

The National Guard ChalleNGe Academy is a nationwide program designed to help at-risk youth. For 22 weeks, the cadets live, eat, and learn at the academy.

Retired Col. Detrick “Dee” Briscoe is the director of the Kentucky National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program and the Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy. He has been with the program since he retired from the U.S. Army in 2021 after 34 years of service.

“The academy is designed to intervene and claim at-risk youth that may be having a problem struggling with their academics, or it may be that they’re struggling in their home environment,” said Briscoe. “It brings them into a residential program to help them catch up on their schooling to get them back on track. It also provides structure in them where they will build self-esteem and self-motivation.”

Through the highly-structured, quasi-military program, emphasis is placed on self-discipline, personal responsibility, and positive motivation. Students must meet military grooming standards, wear military-style uniforms and observe standard military customs and courtesies.

Students must improve in each of the eight core components of the curriculum: academic excellence, leadership and followership, life coping skills, job skills, service to the community, responsible citizenship, health and hygiene, and physical fitness.

Following the residential portion of the program is a 12-month, post-residential phase that provides the cadets with mentorship and regular check-ins with an assigned mentor.

Samuel Rivera, a former cadet from Louisville, came back to speak to the graduating class. He was a member of BCA Class 45.

“The academy benefited me in a way that’s hard to explain. It was more of an experience,” Rivera said. “It’s definitely helped me overcome many of the challenges that I had, and it continues to help me with challenges that I have now.”

Rivera credits the BCA and its staff for his successes.

“I want to thank Col. Brisco for everything that he has done for me as a mentor and a teacher,” Rivera said. “He has taught me many things and has led me on the right path towards many things. And I continue to praise him for those things.”

When asked where he thought he would be had he not taken part in the academy, Rivera said he would rather look ahead to the future than back at the past. That future includes the U.S. military.

Rivera enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves and will attend basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He plans to be an avionics mechanic.

The BCA primarily benefits the cadets, and the faculty and staff claim to be similarly rewarded for their time served there.

Allison Legaspi has been a teacher at BCA for about three years. She teaches a variety of subjects. However, history is her specialty. During her time at the academy, Legaspi has found her position rewarding.

“Watching them start the program and transition through it and seeing the outcome of the program, especially when cadets come back,” she said. “It gives you a sense that you’ve done something good that really changes them and their behavior. You see them come in, sometimes not that disciplined, and when they leave, they have that discipline to control themselves in a manner that’s befitting to them, which shows they are gaining a lot from the program.”

Before the graduation of class 48, Legaspi had a special visit from a past cadet, Rivera, who came to speak to the class. She said that such visits are memorable.

“I’ve had cadets run up to me from the prior cycle. It just gives you a good feeling,” she said. “To me, they become like my children. And so, when they return to attend another cycle’s graduation and see their teacher, there’s just something about that.”

Linda Reynolds is a teacher at the academy, having devoted a decade of her life to shaping young minds. Throughout her time there, she has encountered numerous challenges that demanded resilience and creativity. However, despite the trials, the rewards have far outweighed the challenges.

“I’ve had a lot of resistance,” Reynolds said. “But in the end, they see that I will push back. I’m not going to let them have their way. I’m still going to make sure that they get those things they need as far as education and go that extra to make sure students feel comfortable enough to reach out to me for whatever. The most rewarding part is when they complete the class because that can be a struggle.”

For Briscoe, his leadership of the academies is his way of acknowledging those who helped him get to where he is.

“I have always been extremely passionate about helping young people reach their goals and potential in life,” Briscoe said. “I thank God there have been so many people in my life that took the time out of their busy schedule to help me grow as a young man by mentoring, teaching, and coaching me, and in my opinion, there’s no better way to pay if forward than serving as the director of the Kentucky Youth ChalleNGe Program.”

Since 1999, Kentucky's Youth ChalleNGe Program has worked to improve the lives of at-risk teens from across Kentucky. Since its inception, more than 3,700 students have graduated from the program locally.

As for the future of the academies, Briscoe plans to work with the faculty and staff to continue improving the premier youth program providing students with the resources and skills they need to become productive citizens.

In addition to the BCA, the program also administers the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy in Harlan, which has served Eastern Kentucky at-risk youth since 2012.

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