A retired Army lieutenant colonel told the Thomson Rotary on Thursday that the Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon gives young people a second chance at a basic education.
"Without credentials to market, your chances of getting a decent job are pretty dismal," said Janet A. Zimmerman, who retired from the Army to help found the academy.
Since opening in 2000, the academy has expanded to graduate more than 400 cadets each year.
The academy has been recognized for leadership, for its physical fitness program and for its customer service.
Zimmerman said Congress approved the Youth Challenge Academy concept in 1992, and Georgia was one of the first five states to participate.
She said the program has 104 full-time employees.
She stressed that the academy is not a military-recruitment program.
The 17-month program includes two phases, including post-residential tracking.
Applicants must be high school dropouts, ages 16 to 18. "If you are 17 and haven't finished ninth grade, you are a statistic in the making, so we take those kids," Zimmerman said.
A participant must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident, free of illegal drugs, free of the courts system, and must volunteer. "They can't be court-ordered," Zimmerman said.
"They recognize that they're going nowhere fast, and they want to change it," she said.
About 75 percent of applicants are male.
The academy's quasi-military model is patterned after Army basic training. Cadets wake up at 4:30 and have fitness instruction before breakfast.
After a long day of training, they go to bed at 9 p.m.
Some of the cadets have significant weight issues, but Zimmerman said, "We expect everyone to try."
Cadets descend a 60-foot-tall rappel tower. Zimmerman said cadets learn that "the limits they set are artificial."
Eligible participants are required to register to vote. Male cadets must be registered with the Selective Service.
Zimmerman said the academy works with Richmond Academy in Augusta on a credit-recovery program.
Instruction covers life coping skills, including money management, anger and stress management, physical fitness, job skills, health and hygiene, leadership and followership, and job skills. Participants devote at least 50 hours of service to their community.
They accept the cadet creed: "I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do."
"It's not all military, all the time," she added. Activities include the recon platoon, basketball, coed softball, drill team, yearbook, newspaper staff, color guard, student council, Marine Mud Challenge, college classes, job shadowing, Bible study, gospel choir, art club, book club, flag football league and more.
Zimmerman was the guest of Rotary President Don Powers.