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The Illinois National Guard's Lincoln's ChalleNGe Class 59-23 had a long list of accomplishments when its more than 90 cadets graduated on June 10 at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, Illinois.
The class recovered 277 and a half credit hours, awarded seven high school diplomas and 31 GEDs, 33 cadets returned to high school, $33,050 in college scholarships were awarded, some 24 cadets are enlisting in the U.S. military, 13 cadets were placed in jobs, more than 7,000 hours were completed in vocational programs, more than 5,321 hours of community service were completed, and the cadets lost 1,016 pounds of fat and replaced those with 623 pounds of muscle.
But two important numbers were not listed in Class 59-23's program: 30 and 16,000.
In July, LCA will reach its 30th year and among the cadets who walked across the stage on Saturday included the 16,000th young man or woman to graduate from the Illinois National Guard's youth academy.
Starting in July 1993 on the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, the program has helped 16,000 struggling young men and women find a path to success. As Class 59-23 Valedictorian Taiwo Sowemimo said, the path to success is not always, or often, a straight line, but the "seeds of discipline, consistency, and endurance that we have sewn at LCA will surely bear fruits of victory one day."
Sowemimo said the cadets that enter Lincoln ChalleNGe Academy's 22-week residential phase are far from perfect - as are we all - but those who completed the program bettered themselves and did not quit. She thanked the LCA staff for believing in them and, despite their flaws, “accepting us completely.” She urged her fellow cadets to “Thank your parents. Your parent-figures. Your family, regardless of blood. They stood by you, they filed your paperwork, came (to the academy) on passes, bought you supplies. They’ve seen you at your worst and, today, as the class of 59-23 graduates, will be seeing you at your best. They stood by you all this time because they knew the potential you had in you. And they were right.”
LCA’s campus is still on the former Chanute AFB, but five years ago it moved out of the old Air Force barracks and into a new three-building state-of-the-art campus. The program has also evolved from being primarily driven toward helping cadets obtain GEDs and learn life skills. Now the academy offers GED completion, credit recovery, assisting with re-entry into high school, and multiple vocational programs ranging from fire services to certified nursing assistance to food services to welding.
As LCA Director Col. (ret.) Maurice Rochelle said “Yes, we give them hot blow torches.” But the welding program, done in partnership with Parkland Community College, is conducted safely and is now one of multiple avenues for cadets to find success. The academy still uses a quasi-military environment to teach discipline, leadership, and life skills. The cadets start their day at 5 a.m. each morning to do physical training and good healthy habits are drilled into the cadets.
It also still has an extensive community service program. Matthew White, the morning news anchor for WCIA CH 3 in Champaign, was the keynote speaker for Saturday’s graduation. He spoke to the cadets about serving the community and the importance of being part of the community.
Maj. Gen. Rodney Boyd, the Assistant Adjutant General – Army of the Illinois National Guard and Commander of the Illinois Army National Guard, also took part in the graduation along with multiple both retired and active Illinois National Guard officers and NCOs, some of whom serve as mentors for the program.
As she closed her speech, Sowemimo urged her fellow graduates to continue their growth. “Get wisdom and understanding. Open your ears to those who have wisdom and life experiences to share. And only give your time and energy to those who are dedicated to seeing you grow, dedicated to seeing you win, and dedicated to seeing you happy.”