Abrams woman: ‘Be the person you are right now’

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Challenge Academy helps Nowinski turn her life around

By Vaughn R. Larson, Special to the Times Herald

Cadet Taylor Nowinski, Wisconsin Challenge Academy Class 42 Distinguished Honor Graduate, addresses her fellow cadets during a June 22 ceremony at Necedah High School. (Photo by Vaughn R. Larson, Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs)

Taylor Nowinski of Abrams was expelled from high school and had no real options until the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy offered her the opportunity to improve herself.

During the early days of the 22-week resident phase, Nowinski said she was the candidate most ready to go home, counting down the days until A-Day, when at-risk teens either took the Challenge Academy oath and applied themselves to completing the resident phase, or left the program.

Nowinski’s certainty about quitting turned into taking that oath. Many weeks later, she found herself giving a commencement speech as the Challenge Academy Class 42 distinguished honor graduate during a June 22 graduation ceremony at Necedah High School.

“Looking back now, I realize that having no choice at all saved me,” she told her fellow cadets. “I could have stayed at home and taken the easy road to nowhere, but this was the time I needed to change, to do better in my life and do something my brothers and sisters would be proud of — and of course, my dad, too.”

Since 1998, the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy has offered an alternative education program to instill in teens at risk of not graduating high school the values, skills, education and self-discipline necessary to succeed in adult life. The academy is open to teens between the ages of 16 years, nine months and not yet 19 who are not on parole or adult probation and have never been indicted, charged or convicted of a felony. Cadets must also be legal residents of the United States.

There are two phases to the program. The first is a 22-week resident phase at the Challenge Academy campus at Fort McCoy, where cadets live in a military-style environment with class uniforms, barracks housing, regimented schedules and assigned tasks, physical fitness training, and a strong emphasis on building values and life skills.

The second, 12-month, phase begins after the resident phase, and the cadet navigates his or her life plan developed during the first phase — this could include completing high school, entering college, getting a job, moving out, or enlisting in the military — with guidance from the cadet’s mentor.

Challenge Academy is a voluntary program, meaning cadets can opt out if they wish — which is why graduating the resident phase is celebrated.

“Cadets, we did it,” Nowinski said. “But I want you to remember to be the person you are right now. Be strong. Don’t give up. When you experience failure, it’s all about the bounce back.”

Brig. Gen. Robyn Blader, Wisconsin’s assistant adjutant general for readiness and training, was the ceremony’s keynote speaker. She congratulated the 101 cadets from across the state.

“You’ve worked hard for this day,” Blader said. “You’ve endured five and a half months of long, grueling physical and mental hard work to get here today. And you should relish today, because no one but you earned it.”

She acknowledged the dedication of the Challenge Academy staff, and invited families and friends to applaud the cadets. Those in attendance responded with a standing ovation, punctuated with cheers and whistles.

“Five and a half months ago you made one of the most important decisions that you’ll ever make in your lives — you made the decision to change course in your life,” Blader told the cadets. “I can assure you, you will never regret making that decision, and we here today could not be prouder of you for making that decision.

“Continue stepping up and continue down the path that you are on.”

Since 1998, the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy has graduated 3,902 cadets.

Applications are still being accepted for the next Challenge Academy class, which begins July 18. For information, visit www.challengeacademy.org.