By Johnny Jackson
Seven Henry County teens will be among 180 cadets to graduate today from the Fort Gordon Youth Challenge Academy (YCA) in Augusta.
YCA is a 22-week residential youth program, operated by the Georgia National Guard, for teens aged 16-18, who have dropped out of school.
"It would have been a bumpy road, if I didn't come here," said Marquez Tippit, 16.
The military-styled program provides teens with the opportunity to complete basic academic courses leading to a high school diploma or GED.
The voluntary program also provides life-skills training that emphasizes academic, physical fitness and personal discipline.
"Living with 38 people, I had to learn how to adapt to that," Tippit said. "I learned discipline, respect, integrity, teamwork ..."
He was able to get his GED and prepare for a future in the Air Force.
Tippit was part of a group of four students from Stockbridge that included Nicholas Bates, Tiphanie Boykin, and Evan Sieli. Other Henry pupils were Brian Gulley and Floyd Thompson, of Hampton, and Franklin Hartsfield, II, of Locust Grove. They are part of the largest class to graduate from YCA-Gordon since the campus opened in 2000.
"In most occasions, high school counselors lead them toward Youth Challenge," said Lt. Col. Ken Baldowski, spokesman for YCA.
"The primary focus is the completion of education and getting their GED," Baldowski said. "Of course, they learn life skills and physical fitness. It's a very regimented environment. However, it is all voluntary; they are free to leave whenever they chose."
While a percentage of YCA graduates will enter the military service after graduation, others will continue their education at local colleges and technical schools.
Seventeen-year-old Gulley plans to enter the Job Corps to become a certified heavy equipment mechanic.
"YCA was a good experience for me," Gulley said. "I think it's a good program. They taught me a whole bunch of discipline and teamwork. If anyone needs to get their life straight, come here."
Many YCA graduates return to their hometowns and are paired with volunteer YCA mentors in the community to assist them for a year.
Likewise, Hartsfield said he wants to be an example for his 6-year-old brother, Branson, by pursuing a four-year college degree in "musical engineering."
"I try to be [an example]," said Hartsfield, 18. "I try to teach him to do the right thing and not make the same mistakes I did. Overall, I learned how to be a better person with integrity."
Today's YCA commencement speaker will be Georgia's Secretary of State Karen Handel.
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