Starla Townsend was the guest speaker at the Lions Club on April 27. Townsend is the first civilian and the first female to hold the position of director of the Youth Challenge Program (YCP) in Louisiana. Townsend spoke about the program and introduced four cadets who are currently about halfway through the program.
“The Youth Challenge Program is the heart and soul of my life,” said Townsend. “I’ve been there for 21 years, and we’ve seen a lot of things change since it started. It’s always been a badge of honor to me to say that I was there when the doors of Camp Minden Youth Challenge Program opened but, for those of you who do not know, it’s because of Colonel [Carl] Thompson and Ms. Jean Doerge that the doors were even there to open.”
Former State Representative Doerge was instrumental in acquiring state funding for the program, and retired Col. Thompson helped plan and set up the facilities.
The purpose of YCP is to intervene in the lives of 16- to 18-year-olds who are needing and desiring to change their lives. This 22-week program is administered by the National Guard, and there is no cost to attend.
Camp Minden’s program is one of three available in Louisiana. Since Camp Minden opened YCP in 2002, more than 6,000 students have graduated. The three YCP programs combined have graduated more than 27,000 students since the first one opened in 1993.
“That means that’s 27,000 students who were struggling that we gave a second chance at life,” said Townsend.
YCP employs over 100 people: IT personnel, nurses, cooks, etc. While military experience used to be required for positions in the cadre (drill instructors), that has recently changed and civilians can also apply.
“If anyone wants to work with at-risk youth, we have a lot of jobs out there that are available,” Townsend said.
“We’re based on eight core components,” said Townsend. “Life-coping skills is something that we focus on. We teach them anger management, how to deal with conflict, how to manage a budget. A big focus is the academic excellence portion. Many of our kids come to get their HiSET [a state-issued high school equivalency credential]; they’re ready to go on to continuing education. But some do something we have now: course choice credit recovery. They can come to YCP, take classes with their high school and, when they finish [the program], they can return to their high school and actually graduate with the high school they started in. That’s a new program for us, and it’s been very, very successful.”
Cadets at YCP learn other skills including writing resumes, job interviewing skills, leadership skills, and how to register to vote.
“We focus on community involvement projects,” Townsend said. “You will see them around the community. We’ve worked with Men of Courage; I believe we helped them build some ramps. You may have seen them in the winter time hanging some of the Christmas lights. They help with the Council on Aging. So they’re out in the community a lot, and they love doing that. They love to get out there and help and see that they’re making a difference.
“We have 90 students on ground. They’re all required to do 40 hours of community involvement. Do the math on that: 90 cadets times 40 hours at, let’s say, $8 per hour. That’s $30,000 that they’ve given back to the community in just this cycle.”
After the students complete YCP, they are monitored for a full year with case managers checking up on them and encouraging them to continue to make wise choices. And now they also offer a Job Challenge Program (JCP) where students can take technical courses. This program is free of charge to YCP graduates.
Cadet Landon Basco was the first cadet to speak, saying, “The reason I decided to join YCP was for more guidance, discipline, and structure in life. Since I’ve joined, I’ve definitely acquired all those. YCP is an amazing program. It’s helped me out a lot. After YCP, I plan to go to JCP for phlebotomy and, hopefully, become a traveling phlebotomist. Then I’ll save money to become a veterinarian.”
Cadet Landry Agoff spoke next, saying, “I was doing what I really wasn’t supposed to be doing out in the world. I needed help getting on the right track. One of my goals is to pursue a major in IT.”
Cadet Marvin Ross said, “I felt like I was going down a wrong path, and I needed more guidance. I didn’t have a father figure. I asked my mom, ‘Do you know anything that can help improve me in life?’ She found YCP and told me that she thought it would really help my discipline. When I finish with YCP, I’m going to JCP for welding and heavy equipment.”
Cadet James Grant was the final cadet to speak, saying, “I chose YCP to help me with my academics, my discipline, and a lot of other structure that I needed in my life. Since I was a child, I didn’t have my parents all the time. They were out and about, doing what they were doing; they were young. And I definitely didn’t have a father figure; my father was mostly incarcerated. I volunteered to come here. I didn’t listen to the sheriff when he said, ‘Do not go over the fence.’ Don’t go over the fence, people; tell your kids that. Do not run away from your problems. This program helps a lot of people my age. I have changed my ways, and I’m glad that YCP was here to help me. I will continue to do my best and not end up like my father. I will be doing better than my father did.”