By Johnny Jackson
Pride swells in Charlene Anderson when she tells of the success of youngsters in the Georgia National Guard's Youth Challenge Academy.
One story she takes pride in sharing is about McDonough resident, Brannon Cooley, a 25-year-old Sheriff's Deputy in Butts County.
Cooley is a December 2000 graduate of the Youth Challenge Academy. Now, he mentors for the academy. In the last eight years, he has helped some 20 teenagers through the academy.
"Seeing someone in the shoes that I used to be in, and knowing there is a way out of that lifestyle, it's rewarding to be able to help somebody," Cooley said.
Youth Challenge Academy is a 22-week, residential, youth program, operated by the Georgia National Guard, for at-risk, teen drop-outs, ages 16 to 18. It is a voluntary, military-styled program, which offers teens the opportunity to complete basic academic courses for their high school diploma, or General Equivalency Diploma.
"It's 100 percent military structure from day one until graduation day," said Cooley. "While you're going through that, you realize you've got to make a decision: 'Am I going to fix what I messed up, or am I going to continue down that same path that leads to nowhere.'"
He chose what he calls the "right" path and has since been a staunch advocate of the law enforcement profession.
Cooley has spent the past six years working in law enforcement. He worked as a corrections officer in Clayton County for two years, before joining the Butts County Sheriff's Office four years ago. "I've had fun, and I've enjoyed every day, ever since," he said. He said the experience has enabled him to be a better officer on the job.
"My whole teenage years were on the other side [of the law]," Cooley said. "I've had two friends that were killed in very violent and vicious murders. And, I was living the same lifestyle they were. The school - that was the fork in the road that made me decide which way I wanted to go."
He said he tells youths he encounters that staying focused will lead them to better things. "I tell people I don't have a lot ... but I have a lot to lose [his future]," he said. "Living right ain't always easy, I can tell you that. But you didn't get where you're at [easily]."
Charlene Anderson, a Stockbridge resident, is an intricate part of successes like Cooley's.
Anderson is the secretary of the Youth Challenge Academy State Selection Committee and Advisory Board under Col. Frank Williams. She has worked with the academy since its inception in 1994, and believes the academy is Georgia's best-kept secret.
About 97 percent of the academy's graduates have succeeded in acquiring jobs after graduation, pursuing higher education, or joining the military.
"We actually have a surgeon that came out of Emory [University], who was in class one [in 1994]," Anderson boasted. "We have a Citadel graduate, who is now a lawyer."
The academy has long been a program which has thrived on word of mouth. Anderson, like Cooley, is one of the individuals who have helped make the program work for thousands of troubled youths across the state.
Cooley is engaged in many tasks, even though she has her own family. She and her husband, Ron, are parents of two children, Matthew and Amanda. In addition to her work with the Youth Challenge Academy, Cooley volunteers with the USO at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"It's an honor to serve those who actually lay their life on the line for us, for our freedom," she said. "I just have a heart for at-risk youths, and our men and women in uniform."
About 20 locals were among the more than 122 youths graduating from the academy this December, including: Devonne David, of College Park; Maurice Drayton, of Ellenwood; Neranya Jones, of Forest Park; Jamerio Curry, Brent Kelly, Cyntendrea Meadows, and Darius Smith, all of Hampton; Wayne Furye, Demetrius Newman, and Joshua Seise, all of Jonesboro; Michael Guice and Branden Peele, both of McDonough; Justin Gates, of Rex; Kenton Branch, of Riverdale; and April Clarke, Marcus Jackson, Catherine Potter, Lelia Simmons, Dionte Sims, and Sean Taylor, all of Stockbridge.
To date, more than 8,000 young people have graduated from the academy; 287 from Clayton County and 175 from Henry County. Twelve more cadets from Clayton, and 14 from Henry, are scheduled to graduate in March of 2009.
On the net:
Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart YCA: www.ngycp.org/state/gafg