Rockford youth turns life around
by BETH ALTENA
Spencer Williams was a 17-year-old high school dropout who knew his life was headed nowhere. His dad, Dan, described Spencer as a “pissed off kid, a mad kid” who just didn’t quite fit in. He wasn’t dumb, but he just didn’t click in the traditional high school setting or even the alternative education program. His parents didn’t know what to do to get through to him or to help him.
Then Spencer heard about a quasi-military program that takes on kids just like him. Dan calls the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy the “unheard-of secret—the most amazing program.”
Twenty-two weeks after Spencer stepped onto the campus of the Battle Creek academy, he walked away with his GED, 15 college credits, and 81,000 collective hours of community service. More importantly, he walked away knowing he had succeeded in the most difficult struggle of his life and with a new pride in himself, self-respect he never felt before, and a vision of his future.
“I knew I had to change myself to change my future,” Spencer said. “I knew I wasn’t going to graduate. I knew I had to do something to get my life on track.”
Spencer was dropped off at the campus with a duffle with just socks and underwear. Cadets at the academy can’t bring cell phones, video games, cigarettes—no creature comforts from home to the National Guard military barracks at Fort Custer. Students get one chance to stick it out at the academy and can’t return if they quit. From day one, Spencer was in a whole different world.
“They are in your face 24/7,” he said of the National Guard staff who run the state supported school. “They break you down mentally and make you do everything out of your comfort zone,” Spencer said.
A typical day begins at 5:30 a.m., removing the rack (cot) sheets and standing in line in silence, waiting for orders. Calisthenics follow for the next hour, then cadets are allowed to brush their teeth before morning chow. Each day includes presenting colors: the raising of the Michigan and United States flags at attention before marching to classes.
The first couple of weeks were the worst, by design, and quite a few of the new cadets left or were ordered to leave. A bad attitude was not an option. Slacking off was not an option. Of the 120 cadets who began in Spencer’s cycle, only 91 ended up completing the course.
The cadets have their heads shaved the first day. “They take everything out of your control,” Spencer described.
He said free time was one hour a day and the only activities allowed were reading books and writing letters. The food was bad but allowed enough calories for the intense physical exertion required during the program. Spencer gained 20 pounds in muscle and others lost weight as they gained fitness. “You get used to being hungry,” he said.
“He wanted to come home, there’s no doubt about it,” said Dan.
After the first few weeks with no contact from home allowed, Spencer’s letters began arriving. The staff at the academy had warned Spencer’s parents that he would want out and to tell him to stick it out. The students are not held against their will, and some did leave.
“After awhile his letters sounded a little better,” Dan stated. He could tell, from the writing, that Spencer was going through a process. “They take someone with no idea what to do in life into the safest possible environment and form them into a responsible citizen.”
Amazingly, the program, which is offered in other states, is free of charge to parents and students. It is an At-Risk Youth program which receives $4,800 per student, much less than even the lowest funded Michigan school districts.
“With that money they not only educate them, they house them, clothe them and feed them three squares a day,” said Dan.
Michigan’s academy is the most successful in the country, which Dan attributes to the people who run it.
Spencer said the, “The very same Cadres (National Guards) that busted their chops for the past 22 weeks had the same lumps in their throat, like us, as we walked across the stage.”
“The program is amazing. They are like the red-headed stepchildren of red-headed stepchildren,” Dan described.
The education is unusual and geared toward practicality. It includes learning about preparing a resume, and among the school’s requirements is a post-residential action plan which is reviewed by President Obama. Cadets set their goals for the six months after leaving, and up to the following three years. It must include employment, further education, a choice of career and how transportation will be handled.
Spencer knows the decision he made was the right one for him. “They tell us all the time: pain is temporary, pride is forever.”
Spencer said he read a lot and probably wrote an average of four or five letters a day.
“He was lucky,” Dan described. “He had a lot of people rooting for him. Some of those kids didn’t have that.”
Now Spencer has a plan for his future that includes a college education in the automotive field, but more importantly, the confidence and knowledge that he can control his future and make his life successful. He described the decision to walk away from failure and attend this unusual and difficult educational option. “It was the wake-up moment of my life.”