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ChalleNGe Academy pioneers retire

Two of the original employees at Wyoming Cowboy ChalleNGe Academy were celebrated Jan. 18 during a retirement ceremony at Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center.

Recruiting, Placement and Mentoring Coordinator Theresa Smith and RPM Specialist Paul Holloway began their careers with the National Guard-sponsored program for at-risk teenagers more than 12 years ago, and while they won’t be on the payroll now, it sounds like they plan to continue making an impact, offering to help out where they can.

Holloway, now that he’s permitted to, intends to volunteer with the mentorship program, and work with graduates for a year following the 5 1/2-month residential phase. Smith said she is considering an offer to join the Wyoming National Guard Youth Foundation, but, with conditions.

“My heart is still with ChalleNGe, and I look forward to its continued growth,” Smith said. “I told the board they need to spend more time here and get a better idea of what we do. It’s the best kept secret in Wyoming. I also put out an invite to all graduates to come back and make a difference. I can look in the mirror, and say ‘I did.’”

Holloway said he got many requests, and has already promised current cadets he’d attend their upcoming graduations.

“Young people are great,” he said enthusiastically. “People say they have issues, but we all have issues. I’ve done a lot of jobs here, and been a master of none, but it’s always been all about the kids. Youth and mentoring is what caught my attention on the job announcement, and what brought me here. It’s never boring. Every class is different. We used to stay with a class cradle to grave, but it’s grown more to focusing on the residential phase. I look forward to working with the graduates.”

Assistant Director David Salazar was among several academy and Wyoming Military Department leaders that addressed the two retirees.

“I was privileged to start out as a recruiter and working with Theresa. Three days in, I wondered, ‘Where is her off button?’ You know everything—hair color, eye color. I know just a fraction of what you know,” Salazar continued. “Nine hundred forty cadets and 12 years—there’s no replacing that.”

“They are so involved; they could tell you the Social Security numbers of these cadets,” ChalleNGe Academy Director Eric Brooks said, half-jokingly. “These two have so many stories, and so many graduates have come back just to visit them.”

“You two have saved lives,” said State Command Chief Master Sgt. Bill Whipple, relating to a comment made by a cadet who was talking to a leadership group touring the facility. “She began crying and said ‘You saved my life.’”

The ChalleNGe program was established in a handful of states with a vision of serving families, schools and communities in the short term, by helping turn around at-risk youth heading down a destructive path that typically involves dropping out of school, running away from home, involvement in criminal activity and eventual incarceration.

Wyoming’s adjutant general, at the time, Maj. General Ed Wright, also recognized the long-term value to Wyoming and its taxpayers who have to pay the bill to imprison career criminals, who, with early intervention might have finished high school, gotten a job and become responsible citizens.

Smith and Holloway related some of the struggles getting the academy off the ground in Wyoming.

“There were only 17 or 20 programs in the country then,” Smith said. “I was working with youth at workforce services when I saw the job announcement, and thought, ‘We have them for 5 1/2 months? There’s a lot we could do with them.’ We didn’t even have a facility yet, but I went to New Hampshire for training and filled two notebooks. It was the first job I didn’t learn from someone who had been in the position.”

Holloway, who was interviewed for the job by Smith, said he had a month and a half to prepare for the first class.

“Semis would just pull up and drop furniture and everything outside the building and we’d have to assemble it and figure out where it goes,” Holloway said. “We took a lot from other states. That’s the great thing about the ChalleNGe community. We all share. Though Wyoming is unique and a lot of things need tweaking for our state.”

His advice to those who follow him: “It’s all about the kids. Don’t get wrapped up in petty things on staff or whatever; stay focused and do what’s best for them.”

Smith offered these words of advice with a hearty laugh. “Run, run!”

“Really, you’ve got to love what you do. Like I tell the cadets, ‘We work for the state of Wyoming. We’re not here for the money; we’re here because we love it. Being an adult is hard work. I found a job I loved and I did well,’” she said.