While the spotlight shines bright on the 5 ½ month residential phase of the Wyoming Cowboy ChalleNGe Academy’s program for at-risk youth, an often overlooked component provides just as much value.
The mentorship program provides an accountability partner and role model for cadets before, during and for a year after the residential phase of the program.
“It’s a thankless job,” said Theresa Smith, admissions, placement and mentors coordinator at WCCA. “It’s all volunteer; they don’t get a dime, but they basically take the place of the staff.”
Smith said each cadet is supposed to have two potential mentors chosen before reporting to the academy at Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center. From there, the mentor candidates must undergo a background check, and if they are cleared receive training for their new role.
Smith conducts mentor training sessions five times per class, starting at week four.
After some classroom instruction and open discussion, the mentors get to visit with their cadet, go to lunch together and do some paperwork. The team is expected to maintain weekly phone contact after that.
While immediate family members are prohibited from mentoring cadets, Katherine Inskeep from Johnstown, Colorado accepted the request to mentor her niece, Sierra, a cadet from Eaton, Colorado who was in her fourth week at WCCA at the time. The two shared an emotional reunion at the mentor training session.
“I was crying because I missed her so much,” Sierra said, following a lengthy and tearful hug.
“She was actually living with me for a couple of weeks leading up to this,” Katherine said of her niece. “I’ve known her since she was born, so it’s really tough watching someone you love struggle.”
“I hope I can show her she can have self-confidence and I hope I can be a positive influence,” she continued.
Some mentors are educators or guidance counselors, while others may be a friend or family member. In the case of Brooks Cotton, assistant court services coordinator with Youth Alternatives in Cheyenne, he came to know all of his mentees through his job.
Cotton said he’s mentored several cadets during the past five years, but considers himself “successful” with just the last three.
“I still talk to my last match once or twice a month, even though we were done with our commitment in July,” Cotton said. “I’ve helped them find employment and helped get college scholarships for two of them.
“It’s always a great experience, and I definitely encourage others to do it. I call it intense mentoring. For a whole year, you’re almost with them more than their parents. I’ve watched their struggles and their development at ChalleNGe Academy, before, during and after. The program does amazing things.”
Smith said the months after graduation are really important, and a time when some graduates return to risky behavior. While the team is supposed to have weekly communication, other influences can interfere.
“Some get it right away, and some after a few months, you’ll see them on Facebook with a big marijuana leaf on their t-shirt. We tell the mentors to stick with them, even when they don’t want to. That’s when they’re needed the most, that’s when we need them to ask ‘come on man, what are you doing?’ They tend to come back to it, eventually, and do something good, like join the military.”
If you are interested in becoming a mentor, please call the academy at 307-836- 7517. The academy’s website is www.wycowboychallenge.org.