Stars alight Guard’s 4th annual Youth ChalleNGe night

The teen wore a military-style, gray uniform similar to the garb of dozens of other teens around him.

They crowded the lower lobby of the J.W. Marriott Hotel last night, obviously overwhelmed by the attention they were getting.

“There’s Dale Earnhardt,” said the teen. “No, way,” said another, his eyes scanning the crowd.

Yes, there was an amazing turn out of celebrities, elected officials and military leaders gathered for the National Guard’s Fourth Annual ChalleNGe Champions Gala.

Still, almost everyone said the real stars were the more than 100 Youth ChalleNGe cadets, who shared their stories and dined with them.

These cadets represented more than 84,000 young people who climbed out of a pit of trouble to graduate from Youth ChalleNGe through counseling and training on being productive, employed and law-abiding citizens. The National Guard started it in 1993.

“Tonight’s business is about thanking those young people and their sacrifice to get their lives turned around and back in shape,” said Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “We congratulate the cadets who are here and all those who are at home.”

Youth ChalleNGe focuses on the more than 1.2 million kids who drop out of high school every year, putting them at risk for drug use, gang violence and abusive relationships, said its officials.

It’s in-residence camp and long-term, community mentorship thereafter helps youth find the structure and knowledge needed to realize their potentials.

Television celebrities Kerri Turner and Kelly Perdew, NASCAR drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon and country music singer Julianne Hough were among the star power behind the sold-out event.

The crowd of more than 1,000 dinner guests honored three program supporters, including California Adjutant General Maj. Gen. William Wade, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and Robertson Aviation’s John Rawling.

“This award is really about [all the cadets] because you have the courage to dream, you have the courage to believe in yourself and you have the courage to achieve,” said Wade.

Wade earned the program’s adjutant general award. Officials said he was instrumental in securing funding for a second “Grizzly ChalleNGe” program in his state. Wade also attended and addressed many graduation ceremonies and worked to bring national and state attention to the program, said officials.

Arthur Cabral, 16, from Cyprus, Calif., was among several cadets who listened to Wade’s words of encouragement. “My troubles started around my eighth-grade year,” he said. “I had turned to partying and drugs … I disappointed the people who cared about me.”

Cabral turned to California’s Sunburst Youth ChalleNGe Academy for help.

“I was tired of being thought of as someone who wasn’t going to make it, so I changed my ways,” he said.

Now, he said, his future hopes are to receive a commission as a Marine Corps officer. “I’ve tried my best at everything they have thrown at me, and I’ve done my best, and then some,” he said. Cabral will soon graduate the 18-month program.

In his state of Oklahoma, Henry said he had witnessed the difference Youth ChalleNGe makes. “I have seen kids, headed to prison or going to end up dead, who were willing, and had the courage, to take that chance because someone was willing to give them that chance,” he said. “They turned their lives around.”

Henry was selected as the year’s top supporting governor from 27 states and Puerto Rico that run ChalleNGe programs. “One of my missions is to see every state have at least one program, and I want to bring more to Oklahoma.”

Clarence Wesley Jones, a Georgia cadet from the Fort Gordon Youth ChalleNGe Academy, told the audience how he escaped local gangs through the program. He said he changed his perspective from becoming a high school dropout and gang-banger to working toward being an airline pilot.

“I like being respected for my abilities and my accomplishments,” he said. “I will always be grateful to Youth ChalleNGe for the chance they gave me.”

For a bit of entertainment, there was Hough and Kellie Pickler, a former “American Idol” contestant, who both sang signature country songs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon as well as IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon were on stage to auction off two special VIP auto racing trips that brought in tens of thousands of dollars in donations to the non-profit Youth ChalleNGe Foundation.

“The foundation that we are supporting here tonight is a big deal and a great honor,” said Earnhardt. “It’s great to see all the lives that will change in the future, and it’s an important part of the National Guard.”

Along with other auctioned items, more than $125,000 was donated to the foundation’s public awareness, scholarships, higher education and job development work.

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