5:48 p.m. PDT March 31, 2016
Being a wrestler, Ricky Santiago, 18, thought the physical training elements of the Oregon National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program would be easy for him.
It wasn’t until he had to clean up his own vomit and get back to training that he realized he might have a harder time than anticipated.
The Oregon National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program is a statewide, accredited, alternative high school for students at severe academic risk.
The Oregon program is one of 34 nationwide and has been recognized as one of the top programs in the country.
The program is cost-free to cadets and their families and has graduated more than 5,400 cadets since it began in 1994. Since 2004, 174 students from the Salem-Keizer area have completed the program.
Guided by military principals, structure and discipline, the students get caught up on school credits, work to be healthy and physically fit, and learn leadership and professional skills.
And did we mention these 16- to 18-year-old students are doing this for weeks on end with no cell phones?
Santiago was far behind in his school work and wasn’t on track to graduate.
He had friends who had completed the program, so he thought he would give it a try.
Little did he know, the program would not only help him get on track, but show him a path to college and the rest of his future.
He plans to graduate from Roberts High School in Salem soon.
Yareli Rosas, 17, said she was going to be a ‘super-super-senior’ if she didn’t get caught up.
She was hesitant about the program, particularly the physical fitness element. “I didn’t think I could do it,” she said.
Encouraged by friends, she reluctantly signed up. She wasn’t looking forward to being away from her family or having to physically train 7 days a week.
The federally funded, tuition-free program is 17 months long. The students start by spending five months in residence at the Bend facility, followed by 12 months of work with a mentor.
During the five months in residence, the students get two extended weekends for breaks and one parental visit. Otherwise, they communicate with their friends and family via letters.
The program takes 156 students each class — 120 boys, 36 girls — taking two classes a year. The program is set to expand to have 240 students by 2019.
Though tough at first, after a few weeks in the program, Rosas said she realized how important it was for her future.
“I realized it was actually good for me and changing me for the better,” she said.
Not only is Rosas going to graduate from McNary High School in Keizer the summer following her target date, she is moving forward with new aspirations to go into criminal justice and become a police officer.
In addition to traditional classes and physical training, students also learn to work with people of different ages and personalities, develop leadership skills, learn about drug awareness and parenting, go through anger management and conflict resolution courses, and volunteer in the community for a minimum of 80 hours before they finish the program.
The students have to earn 80 percent or higher grades in all of their courses during the program as well.
While there, the students have to hold jobs at the facility. Santiago was in facility maintenance and Rosas was in mechanical maintenance.
For many students, the program is transformative in more ways than one. Santiago said a couple of cadets in his class lost about 100 pounds from the fitness regimen and others found their confidence.
“It’s a great thing to see those struggling … set goals, meet those goals every day … and begin to develop a vision for (their) future,” said Frank Strupith, the admissions recruiter for the program.
For more information about the program, call 541-317-9623 or go to www.oycp.com.