MADISON, Wis. — A bus trip to the state capitol building and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is a great school field trip, but it’s something more for cadets at the Wisconsin National Guard’s Challenge Academy.
“It reinforces the values of service to community as well as being a responsible citizen,” explained Kevin Greenwood, the Wisconsin Challenge Academy interim director. “We’re trying to get across that it’s important to be involved in government and be an involved citizen.”
That message was also emphasized by three state legislators — LaTonya Johnson, Dianne Hesselbein and John Macco, state Assembly representatives from Milwaukee, Middleton and Ledgeview, respectively. Hesselbein told the cadets she never thought of being an elected representative until she took an interest in an issue facing her school board, and then her county board.
“So I ran, and I won,” she said. “So just because you might not see public service in your future, don’t ever rule it out. People voted for the three of us, and if we can do this job, I know you can do it, too.”
Johnson said it was gratifying to see cadets take control of their lives at an early age.
“I know what it’s like to live in poverty and have struggles,” she said. “I grew up in a three-room shack with no indoor plumbing in the heart of the ghetto on Milwaukee’s north side.”
Macco encouraged the cadets to not let youth limit their accomplishments.
“We call my father’s generation the greatest generation — not for something they did when they were 75 or 80, but for stuff they did when they were 20,” Macco said. “So these kids can do great stuff.”
Hesselbein encouraged the cadets to contact their local representatives if they encounter an issue in their community they cannot resolve on their own.
“We’re elected to help people,” Hesselbein said. “That’s what we like to do.”
Cadet Scott Kelly of Milwaukee acknowledged that the opportunity to spend part of a day away from Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, where the Challenge Academy campus is located, was nice, but there was added value to the field trip.
“We’re learning a lot about the government, learning about our history,” he said. “It really helps us achieve our goals.”
The Wisconsin Challenge Academy takes at-risk teens out of environments where poor life choices are easy to make, and houses them for more than five months in a quasi-military setting to build positive values — discipline, integrity, honor, courage and commitment — through physical and mental development. In addition to class work, cadets perform community service and spend time with mentors to develop a life plan after graduation.