KINGWOOD, W.Va. — Spending time at the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy this past week was a real honor and indeed an eye-opening experience. Nestled along the majestic Cheat River just off W.Va. Route 7 in Kingwood on the grounds of Camp Dawson, this outstanding program remains West Virginia’s best kept secret.
Its mission is a simple one — to train and mentor selected at risk students using eight core components in a quasi- military environment. The goal is to help these unique and courageous young men and women between the ages of 16 and 18 become contributing members of society. For 22 weeks, they learn those eight core components, which are life-coping skills, job skills, health and hygiene, citizenship, education excellence, service to the community, leadership and fellowship and, of course, physical training.
The success rate is nothing short of amazing. The ChalleNGe Academy’s “whole person” concept has helped graduate 3,279 cadets from all 55 counties since opening in 1993. Those who proudly run the program boast an average of 272 graduates each year. And as of 2013, those who qualify can actually attain high school diplomas from the counties they hail came from. Even more remarkable, beyond graduation, cadets participate in a one-year follow-up program led by volunteer mentors from their home communities. These role models assist the cadets with their Post-Residential Action Plan, helping them achieve even greater success. In fact, mentor reports indicate some rather impressive statistics. For example, 41 percent enter the workforce, 17 percent go into the military and 12 percent go to college.
But beyond the startling success rate, there is a uniquely human side to the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy very few know about or even heard. According to its longtime Director Kathy Tasker, most of the teens who end up at the academy actually requested to attend on their own. So the idea that these teens were forced to spend 22 weeks at Camp Dawson because they are perhaps juvenile delinquents is a misconception. These teens, who either learned about the amazing program from a brother or sister who
attended or because they wanted a chance to succeed, took the initiative to sacrifice all that we take for granted to become a cadet. They actually consider it an honor and, in many cases, a chance and opportunity to achieve a better way of life.
The driving force behind the program is, of course, the staff who keep the wheels moving forward on a daily basis. There are 62 people who work at the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy under four areas of operation. The Administration Department handles cooperative activities on the state and national levels to sustain and develop the program. The Cadre Department, which is overseen by the Commandant of Cadets, provides the 24-hour supervision, training schedule development and instruction, physical training and community service. The Education Department, provides support through high school equivalency instruction, life-coping skills and job skills. The Recruiting, Placement and Mentoring Department handles goal planning, mentor training and placement functions. The Logistics Department provides the general business support necessary to operate a residential school.
The truth of it is, we live in a time when hope for one’s future is hard to find. West Virginia’s jobless rate continues to spiral out of control. Drug abuse has literally decimated the workforce to the point where those who wish to work can’t even pass a drug test. But in the small city of Kingwood at Camp Dawson, the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy is making a difference. The young men and women who complete the program become outstanding, successful members of society. They are the embodiment of the can-do West Virginia spirit, who, if given the chance, could lead our state to a new era of prosperity.
John Dahlia is editor of the Preston County News & Journal. His column was made available via the West Virginia Press Association and its statewide story-sharing service.