imagesIndeed, the Land of Lincoln is experiencing some problems and some of them are even self-inflicted. No state budget for the past year with no end in sight appears to be contributing to the shuttering of social service organizations and non-profits that service the most vulnerable of our society, especially the seniors and youth.

 Some youth, particularly those who depend on these services for support, have very little access to resources outside of the help they may receive. “This is a critical issue in our communities right now,” says Bronzeville resident David Griffin, who’s seen a spike in juvenile delinquency in his ward. “Today, they need political connections to get a job. A lot of our youth don’t have that,” he says. “They have nothing positive to do.”

Located about two hours outside of Chicago, Lincoln Challenge Academy (LCA) has been assisting at-risk-youth for the past 22 years. Born out of the 1993 Defense Authorization Act for the National Guard, the Bureau was tasked to conduct a pilot youth intervention program. Its purpose: to determine if life coping skills and employability of a high school dropout could be significantly improved through participation in a life skills program using a military model, according to their public affairs officer, Aaron Ritter.

The 17.5-month program, which accepts 16 to 18 years of age, has graduated 14,400 cadets since its start 22 years ago. According to their press release, there are eight core components of their program, which includes academic excellence, health, hygiene, physical fitness, job skills, life coping skills, responsible citizenship and service to the community.

Nathaniel Ratliff

LCA Cadet Nathaniel Ratliff

Rosalie Peoples shared with the Chicago Defender how the program benefitted both of her sons. Her youngest, Nathaniel Ratliff, attended ChiArts High School and she noticed his grades started dropping and he started skipping classes. The breaking point she says came “when his dean suspended him for coming into class smelling like marijuana.” She and her husband enrolled Nathaniel immediately into the program. He was off the same week and paired with Sargeant Holmes, who she says “talked with him like he was his own son.”

And LCA isn’t just for males. Seventeen-year-old Imani Torres, who just graduated in April, says her attitude was “very rude.” “It changed a lot after the program. I learned how to listen and process other people’s points,” she says. She credits the Youth Group with showing her how to express her feelings and work through any anger issues.

Imani Torres

LCA Cadet Imani Torres

Torres has just enlisted into the U.S. Air Force, she told the Defender, which isn’t surprising considering 12 percent of the graduates enroll in the military, while 34 percent pursue higher education and 49 percent move into employment. Her grandmother, Dawn Hernandez, heard about LCA through a friend and is pleased that she completed the program and is headed off to the military.

Program’s Criteria

The program requires potential enrollees to live in a campus-like setting, and the cost of the program is free, according to Ritter. However, potential applicants must meet certain requirements, including but not limited to:

         Legal citizen and resident of Illinois

         Withdrawn or dropped out of high school at time of registration with no GED

         Unemployed

         Drug-free before arrival (Not a detox program)

         No pending court cases, no felony convictions

         Can’t be awaiting sentencing or be an adult on parole or probation

         16 18 years old at start of class

         Volunteer only, not court-ordered

LCA considers an investment in the youth is an investment in the future of Illinois communities. “The cost to society without this program could be much greater if our youth are lost to unemployment, welfare, drugs, gangs or the judicial system.” On July 17, applications for the January 2017 class will start being accepted. The cost is free.

Current federal legislation covers the cost of the program, which comes out to be $14,000 per cadet, but the program still accepts donations and volunteers. If you know about any youth who could benefit from this type of mentoring, share this information and have them contact LCA at 312-842-7729 or visit their website at http://www.lincolnschallenge.org/

LCA has six recruiting offices throughout the state of Illinois.

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