At-risk teens learn lessons in National Guard program

For Laura Lavan, the choice was simple.

Her son, Kardae Caldwell, 16, was bored with school to the point of possibly dropping out, which was not acceptable in Lavan’s eyes, so she began researching alternative educational programs.

She learned about the Louisiana National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program, and after speaking to youth counselors and police officers, she strongly recommended her son give it a try. Otherwise, she told him, if he dropped out, he would need to find somewhere else to live.

He decided to attend and was one of the 250 cadets, 200 boys and 50 girls, hailing from all over the state who participated in Family Day on Sunday where relatives got to watch them participate in an official military parade and review ceremony at the Gillis W. Long Center in Carville.

The cadets have made it through 18 weeks of the residential program, which started in October, and have only four weeks left before it ends.

Maj. Damon Price said 343 cadets were in the class when the program began in October, but 93 left for various reasons, including attitude problems, fighting or not making an effort to change.

Lavan said she was happy her son was in the program.

“I didn’t want to lose him to the street,” Lavan said.

The program in Carville is one of three Youth Challenge Programs sponsored by the Louisiana National Guard — the other two are at Camp Beauregard near Alexandria and Camp Minden near Bossier City — and one of more than 30 programs nationwide.

The program offers at-risk adolescents from 16 to 18 years old an opportunity to pass their High School Equivalency Test, learn life skills and job training, and discover leadership and responsible citizenship in a military-like environment.

Students are in class for about six hours a day, play sports and do physical fitness training in the afternoon, and listen to guest speakers and hold study sessions at night.

Following the 22-week residential phase, the cadets are released but still have to keep in touch with mentors and counselors during the first year to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow, said retired Sgt. Maj. Cliff Warner, a recruiter for the Youth Challenge Program.

On Sunday morning, the cadets gathered in platoons behind the dorms and marched through the campus to the parade grounds for a formal review by Capt. Jackie Manton, Youth Challenge Program coordinator at Carville, and 1st Sgt. Jerome Neal, commandant of cadets.

“The progress and the change they made in these 18 weeks is phenomenal,” Neal told the hundreds of family members and friends who gathered to cheer on the cadets.

Neal awarded the 7th Platoon with the Best Platoon trophy while other platoons were named best marching and best motivated platoons.

After the review and awards ceremony, each platoon marched a lap around the parade grounds, making one more pass in front of the crowd and National Guard leaders in the stands before Neal dismissed them for the afternoon.

Seconds after the dismissal, the cadets shot out of their platoons like a fireworks show, running in all directions toward their family members.

Beth Welford, of Gulfport, Miss., walked onto the parade grounds and threw her arms around her grandson, Dade Newsham, 16, of Ponchatoula.

“He made the commitment to do it, and we’re going to be there with him,” Welford said.

Dade said the hardest part of the program was adjusting to the structure and discipline inside the program.

“It’s a mind game,” he said.

Families spread out over the campus, soaking in the cool temperatures and familiar company over lunch.

Besides the barbecue pits, there were shrimp and crawfish boils as well as fryers and steamers going, giving the area the feel and smell of tailgating.

But not every cadet had family make the trip to support them.

For those cadets, members of the Bridge Fellowship Church in Breaux Bridge were there with open arms.

“More than likely, the reason they are in here was a lack of love, and that is what we want to show them,” the Rev. Rodney Chitwood said. “As a church, we have a responsibility to be involved not just in our local community but statewide and nationwide.”

In the back corner of the grounds, the Daigle family gathered around a table, eating, talking and joking with cadet Daniel Rubin Daigle, 16.

“I see such a world of difference in my son,” said Darrell Daigle, Daniel’s father. “You see such a change in the positive.”

Daniel said the program changed his life for the better.

“I’ve grown in appreciation for the smaller things because at YCP (Youth Challenge Program), you don’t have those things,” he said.

The elder Daigle said his son has never been a troublemaker but just needed a little guidance.

“All the kids you see that stuck through this program, they were good kids to start with, they were just influenced by the wrong things,” Darrell Daigle said.