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Rural Missouri Magazine

About Face!
National Guard's Show-Me Challenge
helps kids turn their lives around

by Bob McEowen

Cadets at the National Guard's Show-Me Challenge in Nevada, hit the deck for group push-ups. The five-month youth program uses military-style discipline to give troubled teens a new start.

A teenage boy lets a curse word slip while talking to his friends outside a classroom building. At most other schools this would pass largely unnoticed. Not this time.

A burly man dressed in camouflage fatigue pants glares at the teen and points to the driveway outside the World War II-era building. Instantly the young man drops to the ground and starts doing push-ups. A friend laughs and quickly finds himself alongside his buddy with his nose to the pavement.

Profanity is just one behavior not tolerated at the Show-Me Challenge, a 22-week youth program held at the Missouri National Guard's Camp Clark near Nevada. From day one, the young men and women here are taught a new way of conducting themselves that's far different from how they might have behaved back home.

“We take 15 years of bad habits and break them down in two weeks and start building new habits that are good,” says Alan Clapper, a Gulf War vet who now heads a team of platoon sergeants at the Show-Me Challenge.

Missouri is one of 27 states to offer the National Guard Challenge Program for at-risk teenagers. The intense five and a half months at Camp Clark are loosely modeled after military basic training.

“We call it a quasi-military format. Really there isn't much quasi to it,” says Sam Schaumann, director of Missouri's Show-Me Challenge. “It's military. That's all there is to it.”

A completely voluntary program, the Show-Me Challenge is free to Missouri teens, age 16-18, who have not finished high school, test drug-free and are able to withstand its rigors.

Hollie Miller of St. Joseph listens during life skills class discussion. While in the program cadets attend school and work toward passing the GED high school diploma equivalency exam.

The Challenge, which began as a pilot program in other states in 1993 and came to Missouri in 1998, seeks not to train soldiers but to turn young lives around. The program is especially aimed at teens who have dropped out of school or are heading that way. In fact, much of its emphasis is on students passing the GED high school diploma equivalency test.

“Kids who don't get a high school diploma often end up in corrections or on welfare,” says Schaumann. “The concept of the program is to spend a little money on these kids and see if we can't get them back on track and make them productive citizens before they end up in that situation.”

Twice a year, in January and July, nearly 200 young men and women show up for “in-processing” at Camp Clark, located about 90 miles south of Kansas City in Vernon County. Most cadets enroll in the program at the behest of parents, guardians or some civil authority. Some come from dysfunctional families. Others have had trouble with drugs or alcohol or have a history of violence. A few female cadets have even showed up pregnant — though none have given birth while at the camp.

Years ago, troubled kids looked to the military as a last-chance hope of rehabilitation. Today's selective all-volunteer military won't take them. The Show-Me Challenge offers teenagers a chance to turn their lives around before it's too late.

“We're taking kids who pretty much everyone else has given up on,” Schaumann says. “Nothing seems to work for them but they haven't gotten into serious trouble yet and here's a chance.”

Nationwide, 35,000 teens have graduated from National Guard Challenge progams, which are funded 60 percent by the U.S. Department of Defense and 40 percent by states. Missouri's program, which is now hosting its eighth class, has graduated 650.

While most of the cadets are male the program is also open to females. Although about 30 females attend Missouri's Chall-enge each class the program is not really co-ed in the usual sense. Boys and girls interact only on drill squad and a softball team. At all other times genders are segregated — so much so that male platoons must do an “about face” or avert their eyes when the female platoon marches by.

Troy Lear, a platoon sargeant at the National Guard’s Show-Me Challenge in Nevada, confronts a cadet for breaking ranks by smiling in formation.

The program is built around eight “core components” — academic excellence, job training, physical fitness, leadership, health, sex and nutrition education, life coping skills, community service and responsible citizenship. Four days a week the cadets are in the classroom working toward their GED and developing life and job skills like balancing a checkbook and preparing a resume.

When not in the classroom cadets are under the tutelage of the “cadre,” the military-style staff of drill sergeants and team leaders. The cadre oversees everything from PT, or physical fitness training, to latrine clean-up duty to the 60-hours of community service required of each cadet. It is this group of leaders who instill discipline and perhaps have the longest-lasting impact on cadets.

A lot of these kids didn't have any structure in their lives,” says Kevin Westerhold, who supervises the platoon sergeants. “Here, we get them into a routine where they're used to getting up at five every morning. We're going to do PT until 6:30. We're going to make our bed. We're going to make sure that we're shaven and our teeth are brushed. We're going to march to chow at the same time and have a flag formation at the same time.

“It's a very structured routine. Actually many of them will tell you it disrupts their lives when they go home on pass.”

While the program is tough, it is not a punishment. In fact, to qualify for the program teens cannot be on parole or probation or charged, indicted or convicted of any felony — a fact that distinguishes the Show-Me Challenge from boot-camp style corrections facilities.

“This is voluntary,” Schaumann says. “They volunteer to come. They volunteer to leave.

“It can't be court ordered. A judge can't take a 17-year-old who has been shoplifting and say, ‘I'm sentencing you to the Challenge Program.' Now a judge or a juvenile officer can make a strong recommendation,” he says.

That's what happened when Jackie Farrow of Willard ran afoul of the law.
“I knew I was disappointing my parents and all my family members,” she says. “I figured I might as well go to the SMCP camp and see if I can get my life back on track and see if I can get my family's respect and trust back.”

Cadets file out of formation to enter a classroom. Students at the Show-Me Challenge learn discipline by marching everywhere they go at Camp Clark.

Out of nearly 200 youths who arrive on the first day, typically just 100 make it to graduation. Many of those who don't stick with it drop out during the first two weeks when those 200 strong-willed individuals first begin to form a cohesive unit.

“Our cadre make it plain pretty quick that if you do what you're told and keep you mouth shut everything is going to be fine,” Schaumann says. “It doesn't take but a few days and things start to come together.”

For many of these young people, the discipline and consistency they experience at Camp Clark is a welcome change from the turmoil and disruption they may have felt at home.

“It's like you're reborn into a new family,” says John Mason, a 17-year-old cadet from Carthage who says he lived in eight different foster homes in the two years before he enrolled in the Chall-enge. “We brought it on ourselves and we hang in there together. We fight to be able to get out of here and stay on track.”

As much as the cadets seem to appreciate the program, their focus is on moving on with their lives. To that end each cadet must develop a “life plan,” which not only outlines their goals but how he or she intends to accomplish them. But the program does not end there. Each graduate of the Show-Me Challenge also teams up with a mentor who will help guide the teenager through a yearlong post-residency program following graduation.

Cadets pick up trash along Highway 71 outside Camp Clark’s gates. Each cadet must complete 60 hours of community service as part of eight “core components” of the program. Other community service projects include volunteering at local food pantries and nursing homes.

“When those kids walk across the stage they're top notch,” Schaumann says of his graduating cadets. “But that enthusiasm is only good for a period of time. If they don't stay on track some of them are going to slip back into bad habits. The post-resident program is just a way to try to prevent that from happening.”

While mentoring individuals might seem out of place in a program that begins with shaving heads and standing at attention, it really isn't. From the first day of the Show-Me Challenge the aim is to provide new direction to youths who have gotten off on a wrong foot.

“We're not only going to be strict on them but we're going to be nurturing to them,” says Westerhold, “We're going to be a mentor at every step of the way.”

For more information write the Missouri Show-Me Challenge Program, P.O. Box 307, Nevada, MO 64772 or call 1-877-625-8685.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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