COVINGTON - For 15 years, the Georgia National Guard's Youth Challenge Academy has been giving troubled teens a second chance.
Last month, two Newton County teenagers got their new beginning when they graduated from the six-month program.
LaMarquis Cooper of Porterdale and Demetria J. Davis of Covington graduated Dec. 20 at Macon City Auditorium, with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle giving the commencement address.
Cooper and Davis brought the total of Newton County residents to successfully complete the program to 25.
"I'm honored to participate in the Youth Challenge graduation, and I congratulate Demetria and LaMarquis upon their graduation," Casey said in a prepared statement. "I am very proud of each student who chooses to put circumstances in the past and move forward toward a bright future and a chance at real success."
The military-style, voluntary program provides teens with the opportunity to complete basic academic courses leading to a high school diploma or GED. The program also provides teens life skills training emphasizing academic, physical fitness and personal discipline.
The program lasts 22 weeks and focuses on at-risk teens age 16 to 18.
The Youth Challenge Academy operates two campuses: one at Ft. Stewart near Savannah, and a second at Ft. Gordon near Augusta.
In addition to basic academic courses, students are taught practical life skills such as how to balance a checkbook, rent a car and buy a house, Mission Coordinator David John said.
Once they complete the program, teens receive assistance finding a job, joining the military or applying to college, he said.
The program is ideal for kids who need more structure than a typical classroom setting, John said.
That was the case for Cooper, 17, who had been skipping classes and getting into trouble before he entered the academy.
His mother, LaWanda Huff, found out about the program through her pastor and said it provided the perfect setting for her son to thrive. Cooper graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and was named the most valuable player on the basketball team.
"Me and my husband (Ronald Huff) think it's the right thing if kids are getting in a lot of trouble. Sometimes you run out of solutions. We did all we could. This is the best program for them. The only thing you have to do as a parent is stick with it," she said.
Cooper described the experience as "boot camp but with more freedom."
He and his classmates would rise at 5 a.m. each morning, exercise, march and then hit the books. They also had to do community service projects.
For Cooper, the schoolwork was never the problem; it was sitting still long enough and showing up to do it.
"I learned to make better decisions. ... I always have been able to do schoolwork. I wasn't patient enough to do it because I had to sit in a classroom," he said.
Now, "I feel like I ain't got to do the stuff I used to do. I've got better ways of being successful," said Cooper, who plans to join the Air Force this month.
Davis, the other local graduate, could not be reached for comment for this story.
To date, more than 8,000 formerly at-risk teens have graduated from the Youth Challenge Academy. For more information, call 912-767-9329 or 912-767-9327, or visit www.ngycp.org/state/gafs.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.