Living up to the Challenge

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy (MYCA) has been helping at-risk youths change their lives for almost 20 years. With their military atmosphere they provide the structure and discipline that the youths need to succeed.

Local resident Joseph Hall, 17, is a recent graduate of the program who can now picture a better and more productive life for himself. 

Before attending MYCA Hall was rude and disrespectful to his family, had violent outbursts and would brush important things off,  said his mother, Kimberly Hall.

It started getting so bad there was even an incident with local law enforcement. 

According to his mother, the family was to the point of either sending Hall to Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility or to MYCA. 

“It was rough before he went,” said Kimberly. “He was out of control.”

“I wasn’t going in the right path. I was doing alright in school but was hanging out with some of the wrong crowd. So I wanted to kind of change things up a bit,” said Hall.

With the help of his mom he began researching military-based camps. Hall said he already knew he wanted to join the military after school. Through their research they found MYCA.

According to Kimberly, she took it into her own hands and gave him no choice other than to attend the academy.

MYCA is dedicated to helping Montana youths by helping them develop skills and abilities to become more productive citizens.

The academy opened in 1999 and has been going strong ever since. They currently have 100 beds and over 50 staff members. MYCA is one of 35 youth challenge programs in 27 states including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

MYCA has graduated 2,621 cadets.

The program is sponsored by the Montana National Guard and is funded by state and federal taxes. Because of that there is no cost to the families. 

The structure of the program is made up of a 22-week Residential Phase and then the Post Residential Phase.

The Residential Phase takes place on the University of Montana-Western’s campus in Dillon.

According to Hall, he had to wait two months until the next class began.

MYCA runs two classes a year — one from January to June and another from July to December.

On July 19, his parents took him to registration in Dillon.

“My parents started crying. I almost started crying,” said Hall. “I kinda teared up a little bit.”

The first 11 days are called acclimation.

“It’s an opportunity for them to acclimate,” said Ron Carroll, MYCA marketing coordinator. “This is usually the first time many of them have been away from home. There’s a lot of homesickness.”

According to Carroll, those days are spent in Dillon but not on campus. The cadets register on campus but are then bussed out to the Dillon Readiness Center. During this time they are given their handbook and learn marching movements, as well as other things they need to know for the next 22 weeks. 

The cadets are also not allowed to talk without being spoken to by a superior. 

“The first day was kinda I want to go back home. Once I was there for a little bit I got used to it more and more,” said Hall. 

Before moving on campus, the cadets participate in a fitness challenge. 

According to Hall, that was one of his favorite parts. Unlike some other cadets he was in decent shape as he had just finished the track season. 

 

According to Carroll, they take diagnostic fitness levels of everyone to know where they’re at. 

Acclimation is also a good time for the cadets to meet everyone in their class. 

“I met some unique people while I was at acclimation. I became really close friends with them, too,” said Hall,  who still keeps in touch with several other cadets.

After acclimation the cadets checked in to Clark Hall. 

“That was probably one of my favorite days because it was a different environment, better beds,” said Hall. During acclimation they use sleeping bags on cots.

“They basically earn their right to be on campus,” said Carroll.

The very last day of acclimation they go through cross-over. 

“That marks the beginning of the post-residential phase and they’re no longer called candidates. They’re called cadets at that point,” said Carroll.

During cross-over they receive the logo to go on their hats. During acclimation they were given blank hats. 

Acclimation is only one of the phases. 

According to Carroll, cadets can phase up individually or as a unit.

Hall maxed out his phases when he reached Senior Cadet.

According to Hall, phasing up gives them more privileges. Some of the privileges as a Senior Cadet are access to the Senior Cadet room that has two TVs, a Wii gaming console, cable and comfortable couches. They are also allowed unlimited phone calls and are offered more food options. For example, they are allowed hot chocolate with breakfast, and dessert and soda with other meals.

Once they phase to Senior Cadet they no longer eat with their platoon but at a separate table with other Senior Cadets. 

While MYCA has a military feel the cadets still attend school Mondays through Fridays. That includes mandatory study hall in the afternoon. They are also required at least one hour of physical activity per day. 

MYCA has its own teachers, counselors and admission staff. 

“We’re making sure they’re getting three nutritious meals a day, they’re getting eight hours of sleep per night, things you would think the average individual needs to survive, to be fit and successful,” said Carroll. “For a lot of youths they don’t have the structure coming in to our academy. All of a sudden they not only do well but thrive on that.”

During week 12 each cadet has a chance to apply for a permanent leadership position.

By week 14 Hall took over his permanent leadership position as Platoon Sergeant. 

“I wasn’t really the type of person who would tell people what to do. But I had confidence in me doing the right thing,” said Hall. “I make sure rooms are clean, they are doing their homework, beds are made, clothes put away, nag them.”

As Platoon Sergeant he helped lead his his platoon to honor platoon status several times. 

According to Carroll, honor platoon is announced every Tuesday night. The platoon that wins each week receives a ribbon, a movie night with popcorn and bragging rights for the week. 

While visits are limited, families can visit the cadets three times during their stay at the academy, but the cadets have to earn those visits.

Hall’s first visit was at eight weeks into the program. The family is allowed to stay for around five hours.

“I see him and he sees me. Everyone is crying. He just looked so handsome,” said Kimberly. “I couldn’t stop crying. He just ran straight to me and hugged for the longest time.”

According to Kimberly, she could see the change in her son’s attitude during that first visit.

Other than the family visits Hall was allowed to call home once a week before he reached Senior Cadet. When Kimberly wasn’t talking to him on the phone she was constantly checking for Facebook updates on the academy’s Facebook page.

“I couldn’t wait to see my son,” said Kimberly. “I knew he was safe, all the activities and the work he was doing with the community. It was exciting to see how well Joe was doing.”

According to Carroll, he tries to update the Facebook page as often as possible to keep the families updated.

Hall also had the opportunity to earn college credits while at the academy. 

Once cadets take their High School Equivalency Assessment (HiSET) they’re enrolled in two college courses at no cost.

Hall took Fit for Life and Creative Poetry.  He said he loved his professors and learned a lot from each class.

“I knew some of the stuff in Fit for Life from health class but there was more science in this class,” said Hall. “I had never written poetry before. I just put a pen to paper and just started writing. I brought my teacher to tears.”

Hall still writes poetry during his free time. 

Before graduating cadets have to perform 40 hours of service to the community. 

“It’s not a punishment. It teaches them to give back to their community and become active and productive members,” said Carroll.

Some of the service projects include serving in a color guard, dog walking at the Humane Society, and cleaning up highways. Hall did over 70 hours of service, most of which came from color guard. 

Along with the service to the community cadets also participate in a vocational week before graduation. The 40 hour week is for the cadets to explore different vocational fields.

“We partner with businesses in the Dillon area. The students got to spend all 40 hours on a career of their choice,” said Carroll.

Hall chose to work in the culinary arts field. He worked with dining services on campus and learned about the food service industry, inventory, baking and more.

“Even before I went to the program I did a little bit of cooking. I always had a thing about cooking,” said Hall.

According to Carroll, Hall has told him that he either wants to be a cook or a welder.

The final phase of the academy is the post-residential phase or mentoring which begins two months prior to graduation and extends to one full year afterwards.

During this final phase the mentors provide guidance and support by maintaining frequent contact with the cadets. Hall chose a family friend for his mentor, James Howe. 

“He’s a long-time family friend,” said Hall. “He’s a great guy. He always seems positive and I’ve never heard him say one negative thing. He’s the perfect mentor.”

Howe takes Hall hunting, they play music and do “just guy stuff,” Hall said.

They currently stay in touch through visits, emails and phone calls. 

After graduating from the academy Hall will head to the Job Corps to work in the culinary arts. He hopes to eventually join the military. 

According to Kimberly, a lot of the structure Hall learned has stuck with him. He still wakes up early to exercise, takes his hat off in buildings, marches and doesn’t put his elbows on the table.

Hall received many awards while attending MYCA. At graduation Hall had earned the second highest number of ribbons, said Carroll. 

Hall would encourage others to attend the academy. He’s been spreading the word throughout town. 

“This place gave me my son back. It was hard, hard for our family and this is what we needed for him,” said Kimberly. “He needed that structure and I knew I couldn’t give it to him. I’m so proud of Joe. This place has done wonders for my son. It gave him a brighter future.”

For more information about MYCA visit their website at youthchallenge.mt.gov or their Facebook page at MYCAcademy.