CAMP BLANDING – Orderly lines of navy blue uniforms march and chant up and down the blacktop runway in front of a crowd of family and parents, showing off some of what they’ve learned so far.
Four platoons competed at the Feb. 16 Family Day at the Florida Youth Challenge Academy – the cougars, the wolves, the bulldogs and the scorpions.
Though it may sound serious, the cadets are smiling and laughing while marching and about-facing. They add their own spin on the drills, chanting things like “Cougars so smooth!” and “Wolf pack swag.” The cadets are having fun and the crowd can’t help but get on its feet after each platoon completes its run.
The Academy provides an alternative to graduation for students who are at-risk of dropping out of high school all over Florida. Family day is six weeks into the program for Class 36 and for many this is the first time they’ve seen their parents since starting the 22-week program.
“I’ve seen them all. There’s kids that are basically lost within the school system, come from a broken family, or maybe just need a little guidance,” said James Ransom, program director for the Academy, has been with the program since the beginning.
The first class started in July 2001 as a program to help at-risk youth become productive citizens. Since then, the program has doubled in class capacity and graduated over 4,950 cadets. It’s funded by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida National Guard, the Florida Department of Children and Families. Its instructors are funded by the Clay County School District.
The program teaches cadets personal and professional development. Students participate in both military drills and procedures and attend classes that can earn them a GED or course recovery.
Ransom, a high school drop-out himself, served 22 years in the army before joining the Florida Youth Challenge Academy staff at the end of Class 1.
“I see these kids where I was, and I want them to see that their future is what they make it,” said Ransom. “These kids are our future and if we’re not putting forth the work now, we will pay for it later.”
The program also uses some of its success stories as instructors and ambassadors.
“It’s unbelievable. I’ve always wanted to come back,” said Sgt. Robert O’Donnell, a former program cadet who serves as an Academy residential instructor. “I’d be coming back for no money that’s how much I love this place.”
Cadet Rutger Johnson, 18, of Middleburg, said he had no direction prior to attending the Academy. After learning about the program from his sister, Johnson worked to save enough money to attend the Academy.
“The fact that a month has gone by and I can already see a change in myself and my family members is absolutely insane. I truly believe that anyone who wants to change can come here and do it with minimal effort,” Johnson said.
Jessica Kirksy, Johnson’s sister, has noticed the change in her brother as well and has high hopes for his future.
“He has grown in so many ways. His handwriting, the way he walks, the way he talks, just everything,” Kirksy said.
Marie Maddox and her two daughters, Cadets Isabel and Aliana Arevalo, are from Orange Park. Like Kirksy, Maddox said she sees visible change is her daughters.
“The change is surreal. They’re doing really great and I am extremely proud of them. I couldn’t keep my tears in my eyes today. They’re blossoming. They’re turning into the fantastic, young beautiful women that I thought they could be,” Maddox said.
Family Day drills end with awards for fitness, cleanliness, drill presentation and honor. The Scorpions, of which Cadet Johnson is a member, comes in first for fitness but last in cleanliness. The Cougars, the only female platoon, wins the day’s drill presentation.