There are 84,000 kids in Wisconsin who are known as habitual truants or drop-outs. Where they go, it depends. But 250 of them get a shot at a life changing experience that starts with them. We'll introduce you to a couple of Chippewa County cadets who chose to take that chance at the Wisconsin National Guard ChalleNGe Academy at Fort McCoy.
They're nearing the end of the 22 week boot camp of sorts, and they're a long way from the boys they once were.
They live and train at Fort McCoy. But these soldiers aren't fighting a battle for Uncle Sam. They're fighting a war within themselves.
Dylan Marsh says, "it's different. You see things differently, you wonder what was i thinking before. Why didn't i see it?"
This clean cut kid, is quite the contrast to the Dylan Marsh who couldn't see his way out of a life spent hanging out at home... He was expelled from Chippewa Falls High School his sophomore year after he overdosed on pills. He says, "I don't have much memory of it. Just remember being in class and I woke up in the hospital."
Dylan says a friend gave him a couple of pills to get high, he'd done it before. But this high took him to an all time low.
"I could have died. My heart stopped three times in the ambulance" Marsh said.
After getting out of the hospital and getting kicked out of school,Dylan just existed, "I didn't do anything. Grew tired of it and realized I wasn't doing anything with my life. Got tired of sitting around, made the decision to come here."
And it's here that this 18 year old learned how to live again. His life is filled with structure and yes sir and yes ma'am, "I'm getting straight A's did you get straight A's before? No ma'am. How does that feel? Good ma'am."
Jake Peterson says, "everybody deserves a second chance."
Jake says this is second and perhaps last chance to straighten out his world, "I was addicted to meth and ecstacy. Friends going to jail constantly. Dropped out of school in 8th grade. wasn't getting very far in life and needed a change."
Jake gave up life at Bloomer High School for life at home, with his drugs, "just laying in my bed watching tv. Go to the skate park once in a while. That's about it."
After getting busted and charged with disorderly conduct, Jake's social worker suggested the Challenge Academy. Jake says, "there was no turning back this was the best thing for me."
This 17 year old's first days were a struggle. He had to withdraw from meth here. He remembers, "it was difficult. You start to break down... Hardest thing I've every had to deal with."
Those dark days were quickly filled with light, though.
Jake got into the groove and into his new life as a model cadet.
"It's totally flipped around. Non-discipline to discipline, no structure to structure. Running every day, five miles I could never do that before... I was an "F" student now i'm getting straight A's."
Why does this work?
Jake and Dylan say it's the encouragement and safety net here.
Jake says, "they teach you you can do the right thing. For the first time in my life they taught me when you do good things you'll get rewarded for them."
Peter Blum says, "to a certain degree we're forcing them into success, when they go to school and do their homework at night they realize they can be successful at things they didn't think they could be."
Challenge Academy Deputy Director Peter Blum has been watching cadets evolve here for years, "they come in day one scared and afraid what will happen in the future. Quickly see the change in themselves within a couple of weeks."
The cadets come from all corners of the state. The state picks up 40% of the tab, federal money takes care of the rest. And Blum says $7,000 for this program beats the $60,000 tab on a prison stay.
"Typically we wait until they commit that first felony, then we throw the resources at them. This is designed to get them before they commit that felony," says Blum.
The academy has an 80% success rate, nearly 90% of the cadets, males and females, will march and hustle their way to high school equivalency diplomas.
For these Chippewa County cadets, failure is not an option. They both are considering the military and college. That's their future. One they couldn't see before. And both Dylan and Jake say their families can now be proud of them.
Jake says, "back then I was a blur. They couldn't control me, now I write them every week. I have better communication with my parents than I ever did."
If they hadn't volunteered for this, the teens believe they'd be back into drugs and their old ways. That's where life at the academy comes in.
Dylan says, "even if it gets hard you have to keep on."
Jake says, "choose the harder right over the easier wrong."
Dylan, Jake and the other cadets in the academy's 16th class graduate in June. They'll stick with a mentor who will help them reach their goals. The next session starts in July.
If you want to learn more about the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy click here