CUTLINE: Austin Kaplan was named Valedictorian for Class 32 at the Florida Youth Challenge Academy in a June 6 awards ceremony.
CAMP BLANDING – Three flags hung in the large room – the United States, the State of Florida and the Florida Youth Challenge Academy flag. At the end of the June 6 banquet, Program Director James Ransom added a tassel to the FLYCA flag in honor of Class 32.
“Some of you came with so much baggage at your young age of 16, 17, 18 years old, you had the world on your back,” Ransom said. “You didn’t know what to do, how to do it, how to process it.”
Cadets received sashes and certificates for achievements in academics, physical fitness, leadership and other areas in preparation for their June 13 graduation in Orange Park.
The first cadets recognized at the ceremony were Valedictorian Austin Kaplan of Orange Park and Salutatorian Travis Hupp.
The banquet honored 30 cadets who passed at least one of their GED tests with a score of 165 or higher. According to the Florida Department of Education, a minimum score of 145 is required on each of four subject tests to earn a GED and the maximum score is 200.
The ceremony was held in the multi-purpose facility of the complex, a building that resembles a school gymnasium. Cadets sat at small round tables wearing identical uniforms – a dark blue jumpsuit with the cadet’s last name the word “challenge” stitched on the front and black combat boots. Women had their hair pulled back into neat buns, and the men had shaved heads.
The cadets were excited, whooping and cheering. Despite the disorder, Program Director James Ransom easily quieted the crowd.
The program’s 32nd class began with 195 cadets, Ransom said, and 163 are expected to graduate June 13 with either a GED or course credit to rejoin their high school class and get their lives back on track.
“There are so many stories and so much to be told here of all the success that you’ve accomplished,” Ransom said.
Many of the cadets faced difficulty in the past – the military-style program is designed to help at-risk students 16-18 years old who are class credit-deficient or have been expelled or dropped out of high school. The event’s speakers, including Ransom, encouraged students to look forward to the future instead of dwelling on past problems.
The program aims to teach discipline and prepare students for the future. Austin Kaplan, valedictorian, said cadets wake up around 5 a.m. during the program. Between class, physical training and other activities, he said, the entire day is scheduled for them.
Ransom said some cadets wish they could stay at the academy after the five-and-a-half-month residential phase ends. The remaining one year after graduation consists of mentorship after the cadet returns home. Most of the night’s speakers focused on the importance of understanding that life isn’t fair and life is difficult, but they are not limited due to their circumstances.
He said he wished new teachers and staff at the academy could start at the end of the program, because the cadets go through a total transformation. Another staff member said the parents see a completely different person on the first family day, just six weeks into the program.
Ransom recognized the school’s many staff members, including the counseling and medical departments, for helping the cadets get through a challenging time.
Ransom congratulated the cadets on their decision to take the challenge and stick with it. He encouraged the teens to set goals and strive for them, even when it is difficult.
“I’d rather be a loser than a quitter any day,” he said.