Representatives of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program held a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill on February 25 to promote the merits of the program. For young people who’ve dropped out of high school, this program is offering a second chance by introducing structure and discipline in their lives.

“The overriding objective of the program is to leverage the strength of the National Guard and the great need that many of our young people have in this country for a second chance… giving almost 100,000 young people an opportunity…” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). “We want to turn from a direction of failure and lack of success to a direction of success and productivity.”

The program is a joint operation between federal and state governments and the Department of Defense. Under the direction of the National Guard, students in 23 states receive military style education and training.

Once students graduate from the program, there are a variety of different paths they can take, including entering the workforce, furthering their education, or entering the military. Students really are afforded another opportunity to do something positive with their lives.

The program afforded a second chance to Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Capuano. In 2003, Capuano joined the program at age 17 after having trouble in traditional academic settings. Capuano said the program turned his life around, and he now works at as an Air Force engineer.

“I was certainly on a really quick downhill trip in high school,” Capuano said. “I had no confidence academically. I had very little discipline and very little structure. I have so much to give back to this program that’s given me so much.”

Perhaps the staunchest advocate for the program is Alvin Burke Jr., also known as World Wrestling Entertainment superstar “MVP.”

Burke, a native of South Florida, said he associated with the wrong crowd as a teen and that led to a stint in a juvenile detention facility and, later, a 9-1/2 year prison sentence. Burke believes the program would’ve been just what he needed as a teen and he’s proud to be its national spokesman.

“It’s very important to me now to use my influence as a WWE superstar to try to make an impact on at-risk youth and direct them away from ,” said Burke. “I want to use my role as a WWE superstar to make sure that at-risk youth know that this program exists, to know the merits of the program and to introduce them to people like Staff Sgt. Capuano.”

However, even proponents say the problem with the program is its accessibility. It’s available in only 23 states and budget restrictions allow the program to accept only 38 percent of applicants nationally.

Still, supporters including former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise believe that if the program cuts the nation’s high school dropout rate, the economy would see a much-needed boost.

“If we could cut the dropout rate in half, what it would mean is $4 billion in additional wages a year as well as 30,000 new jobs created,” said Wise. “That’s just one of dropouts. Think of what it would be for each class of dropouts.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO