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Hope for Miss. youth:

“I would seriously recommend Camp Shelby for anybody — but it’s also if they want to go,” said Carrie Hay of Picayune who recently graduated from the Mississippi Youth ChalleNGE Academy at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg. She said the program made a big difference for her and now she has goals for her future.

After getting kicked out of school for a fight, Hay found herself running out of options. If she would have chosen to go back to a traditional school, she said, “I would have been eighteen in the ninth grade again because I was failing all my classes and I was doing really bad.”

Sitting in the school office, shortly after the fight incident, a tutoring teacher mentioned Camp Shelby to Hay. After looking it up online, Hay found this a much more appealing option to other types of alternative schools and, after some convincing, so did her family. She left home for Camp Shelby to take up the Youth ChalleNGE in July 2008.

“I hated it at first but then I got used to it and it became like a home to me,” she said. “It made me open my eyes and see that I needed to become an adult and be mature.” Hay found herself in a very structured, military-based training and educational program. She and other cadets were looked after by Cadre, people who were responsible for keeping them on task at all times. Each cadet was also assigned a mentor to help ensure their success.

In addition to educational requirements, the program has a big emphasis on getting the cadets involved in community service projects, such as working with Habitat for Humanity, being a mentor for the boy’s and girl’s club, visiting veterans at the VA Hospital in Collins, picking up trash and maintaining flower beds at Long Leaf Trace and much more. “We went on a lot of community services, helping others out and stuff which is really fun,” said Hay.

Cadets also get to go on trips. Some are designed for fun and have to be earned while others are part of the training. Hay said she enjoyed a canoe trip which served as a team building exercise.

After completing the 22-week program, Hay found herself graduating on December 20, 2008. Surrounded by immediate and extended family members, including her mom and dad, Angela and Vaughan Hay, she also found herself experiencing, maybe for the first time, a true sense of accomplishment.

“I was proud,” she said. “I never thought I would see myself changing or [graduating] but my parents were very proud of me and I was proud of myself too.”

The Mississippi National Guard Youth ChalleNGE Program recently received its second award as the best overall program in the nation. It offers “at-risk” youth, 16 to 19 years of age, the chance to earn their Adult High School Diploma and potentially some college credits if qualified.

The program’s mission is “to improve the education, life-coping skills and employment potential of Mississippi’s youth, ensuring their success in today’s competitive market place.”

James L. Smith, recruiter and public relations for Miss. Youth ChalleNGE, said the program consists of eight core components, including educational excellence, leadership and followership, service to the community, life coping skills, responsible citizenship, health, sex education and nutrition and physical fitness.

“Most kids who come to this program have no hopes, goals or plans of any kind for the future, most coming from broken homes or from homes where both parents work a full time job; they have low self-esteem, don’t feel like part of a family unit… ask them to list their accomplishments, they can think of nothing,” said Smith. “We provide them with that structure, sense of family… we are just as proud as the cadet or their parents when they walk across that stage at graduation.”

Now that Cadet Hay is one of the 5,600 students to have achieved graduation through Miss. Youth ChalleNGE, she is ready to start achieving her next set of goals. She plans to leave in June to start her basic training in the military and then she plans to go on to college for business.

Of her decision to attend Camp Shelby, Hay said, “When I went there, I didn’t expect it to be easy and I didn’t expect a change, but I did and I’m happy. It was worth going there.”

The Mississippi Youth ChalleNGe Academy is now accepting applications for its next session, starting July 18. For more information, call 800-507-6253 or visit the Web site at www.ngycp.org/state/ms.