Tomorrow my grandson leaves for Lincoln’s Challenge Academy in Rantoul, IL. He just turned 16, the same age as his uncle when he attended Lincoln’s Challenge ‘Program’ in 1993. Lincoln’s Challenge was a brand new pilot program ran by the National Guard in 1993. The National Guard still operates it and 39 states now have a Challenge Program however, under a slightly different format. I’m still not sure they have all the quirks worked out.
The idea is that with a structured, disciplined program teens will learn focus and self-discipline while acquiring a GED and life skills. Today, the offer ACT and SAT assistance and testing as well. In 1993, when I was very much a militarized, commercialistic robot, I thought this was a terrific idea for young men (Lincoln’s Challenge did, and still does, accept young women). Today, I’m a bit more skeptical but I can only advise in the current situation. More than anything, it’s a way to remove teens from their non-productive and possibly dangerous environment and give them a look at something different.
My problem with the current Lincoln’s Challenge Academy is the same problem I had with Lincoln’s Challenge Program eight years earlier—the mentor portion. The program provided the mentors in the beginning. Unfortunately, the adverting for mentors in the inner cities of Chicago and Rockford wasn't the same as the downstate communities. Consequently, most of the young men and women from some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago and Rockford were plopped right back where they came from without any follow-up. They received ideas of their possibilities without any support or direction to reach their potential. They spent five months building a future and came out with a pocket full of dreams and $2500.
Many fell right back in where they had left off. I remember writing a letter to Governor Edgar pleading and demanding that the inner city kids, my son one, have the same chance for success as the downstate youth. I explained that if the young men and women were self-motivated and disciplined enough to follow the right path without a mentor, they wouldn’t have needed Lincoln’s Challenge in the first place. All to no avail. My son was in prison within two years, as were many others.
Today, Lincoln’s Challenge requires the teens to find their own mentor prior to even being accepted in the program. How hard is it to understand that if the youth had mentors already the program would be inconsequential? Being somewhat of a social justice activist in the past several years, I’m reaching out for my grandson to men in that arena, however, it’s a lot to ask. Hopefully, someone will respond and he will emerge from this taxpayer sinkhole with better prospects and support than my son, who by the way is a fine, working father himself now.
I’m writing this also as a call to the men in our communities. Take a moment for the young men and women in your neighborhoods. How can you help them help themselves? How can you step out and reach them without waiting for them to ask? Many of the youth in our cities don’t think they need help, don’t think there’s anything wrong or that they are helpless. Even if you don't believe in the military approach, this IS a program doing SOMETHING for our youth. Take a minute and look at the Lincoln’s Challenge Academy’s website and think about being a mentor, think about contributing a bit of your time to our future, because that’s exactly what these youth are—the future of America. What will it look like?