Special Assignment: Youth Challenge Academy helps turn troubled kids' lives around

March 5, 2009, News 12 at 6 o'clock

AUGUSTA, Ga.--- Saturday (March 7) is graduation day for a very special group of kids. Teenagers who have had a rough go of it. Kids who've gotten caught up in crime, drugs, you name it. Augusta's Youth Challenge Academy welcomes these tough cases. They make it their mission to turn them around.

The day starts long before the sun comes up. You can hear them chanting the cadet mantra in their barracks.

"I am trustworthy, honest & steadfast."

These teenagers are from all over Georgia.

"My actions will prove I am worthy of trust & respect..."

They come here to change their lives.

"I will not lie, cheat or steal- or tolerate those who do..."

16-year-old Lynsey Smith is one of them. "Well, when I was in school, since I never went, I got in trouble with the law a few times," Lynsey told us.

Lt. Colonel Janet Zimmerman runs Augusta's Youth Challenge Academy.
"It seems everybody knows somebody who has a child that fell off the wagon..."

She's retired Army with a passion for changing young lives.

"There's no TV, no radio, no iPods, cell phones--all of the trappings of wealth, status, prestige--all of things are not here," Colonel Zimmerman told us.

What kids do get here are five long months of something missing in their lives, structure and a double dose of discipline.

"We are up at 4:30 every morning," Col. Zimmerman says, "We get ourselves ready to go out and do P.T. we clean our barracks. At a quarter of six we're on the PT field. At six we salute the flag and then do an hour of calisthenics."

And by then it's only 7 in the morning.

Fort Gordon is home to one of two Youth Challenge Academies in Georgia. The other one is at Fort Stewart in Hinesville. They run 2 sessions a year here. Three hundred kids are accepted and one hundred will not make it to graduation. Sounds awful, right? Well consider this.

Col. Zimmerman reminds us, "They all volunteer."

That's what Lynsey did. "I knew I wanted to come, because I know I needed to change."

17 year old William Kennedy wanted to change too. Everything is "sir" with him these days. It's a long way from the way it used to be at butler high school.

So what changed? "My attitude, the way I take things more respectable- more responsible," William said.

William got his life back on track here. Now he's got big plans for the future.

"College," he says with a smile.

The smile says a lot. William wants to be a physical therapist and maybe even attend The Medical College of Georgia one day to become a doctor.

For Lynsey who bounced between Cross Creek and Lakeside High School, It's about new found pride and a sense of accomplishment.

"I'm so excited, cause I never completed anything like this before--- I'm excited." What's next for her? "College. I'm gonna be an x-ray technician."

And she's already warned her friends on the outside things are different now.

"Well, a lot of my friends have done bad things, but since they've seen that I can change, they can change. Lynsey continues, "I've told them I'm not gonna be the same person I was before. There's gonna be different things happening."

And how courageous is that? To tell your own friends things will be different now.

The Youth Challenge Academy is taxpayer funded and sponsored by the National Guard. When you apply you don't get to choose between fort Gordon and Fort Stewart. You go where they have an opening. There's also a youth challenge academy in Aiken.

It's not easy. Not every kid will graduate, but they do get results. If you're interested in learning more, click the link below.

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