Click an article
to view it below...
'Ready to Go' When Call Comes
Expects Some to be Called to Duty
See Benefits in Developing Skills
Spring Yields More Than Water
Program gives students second
By TIM MITCHELL
© 2001 THE
Published June 24, 2001
Sasha Alexander grinned
from ear to ear as Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan handed her
a diploma Wednesday afternoon.
Last year, the 16-year-old
Champaign girl had dropped out of Champaign Central High School
and was looking for some direction in life.
"High school just wasn't
for me," she said.
But a Rantoul program
run by the Illinois National Guard gave Alexander a second chance
in life with a boot camp-styled program called Lincoln's Challenge
On Wednesday afternoon,
Alexander walked out of Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention
Center not only with a Lincoln's Challenge diploma, but also a high
school equivalency certificate and a scholarship she intends to
use this fall at Parkland College.
A lot of people could
have given up on me," said Alexander. "But my parents never gave
up and the staff at Lincoln's Challenge never gave up. And I'm determined
to live the kind of life that will make these people who have believed
in me proud of me."
Alexander was one of
440 high school dropouts from throughout Illinois who have spent
the last five months in former military housing on the closed Chanute
Air Force Base and successfully completed a program pointing their
lives in new directions.
Some of the youth came
from farm families in southern Illinois. Others originated from
the city streets of Chicago and East St. Louis.
But they had one thing
in common: They dropped out of high school and looked to Lincoln's
Challenge to give them a second chance at success in life.
"You can stay in the
military for 30, 40 or 50 years, but you will never get the feeling
of pride and accomplishment that you get here on graduation day
as you see the parents standing there hugging their sons and daughters,"
said Lincoln's Challenge Director Peter Thomas.
gave up on each of these 440 individuals at one time or another.
We came here and took those children that everyone else said wouldn't
amount to anything. Lincoln's Challenge does everything it can to
put these individuals on track toward becoming a part of the great
society that we are trying to put together for the future."
on Jan. 16, Isaiah Burton said goodbye to his folks, grabbed his
suitcase and stood in line with hundreds of teens in a gymnasium
for the first day of processing.
16, grew up in East St. Louis, where he dropped out of Lincoln High
School last fall.
guess I didn't have the right attitude, so I stopped going to school,"
said Burton. "I was getting into fights and getting into trouble
all the time. When people are always fighting, it is difficult to
found out about this program up in Rantoul and decided to give it
a chance. I want to make something out of myself."
boys and girls began to learn discipline from the moment they arrived.
After the teens were told to stand in line, a drill sergeant caught
one of the them making comments and demanded he do push-ups on the
want to get them in the mode of knowing that when someone says something
to them, they do it," said Dick Steigmann, a spokesman for
we tell them to jump, they shouldn't be questioning why. Their only
question should be how high to jump."
teens volunteered to be at Lincoln's Challenge.
are coming here because they dropped out of high school; they are
not criminals, they are not drug addicts," said Steigmann.
"They are kids who have made a serious bad decision, and we
are trying to get them to take responsibility."
another part of the gymnasium, Urbana resident Timothy Tobias, 16,
gulped as Fisher hairstylist Barb Stover applied a military buzz
haircut to his curly locks.
had my hair cut, passed a urine analysis test and got all my gear,"
said Tobias, "I've had my hair cut short before, but this wasn't
my cut of choice."
is one of three women who apply the military haircuts all day long.
a challenge doing all these haircuts," said Stover. "Everything
happens so quickly that there really isn't time to talk to the kids.
We take all the hair off for uniformity and cleanliness."
dropped out of Urbana High School after his freshman year and then
attended an alternative school, but he said he didn't like it there,
either, so he stopped showing up.
was always getting sidetracked. I needed some discipline, and I
couldn't find it in a traditional school," he said.
said he decided to enroll at Lincoln's Challenge at the suggestion
of one of his former high school counselors.
week later, 17-year-old Derrick Dennis of Urbana and the other cadets
were awakened at 5 a.m. in their rooms, which include bunk beds
with a chest of drawers for each cadet. Two or three teens share
quickly made his bed military style and hurried with the rest of
his team to the west lawn for physical training, 45 minutes of traditional
6:45 a.m., Dennis and the rest of his team were eating breakfast
in the Lincoln's Challenge mess hall.
mess hall looks pretty much like many high school cafeterias. Each
cadet picks up a food tray and fills it with meals cooked by staff
in Lincoln's Challenge's kitchens. The teens then take seats along
long dining tables, sitting in the exact order that they went through
the line. After the youths fill up the left side of the table, they
take spots in order along the right side.
grew up in Lansing, Mich., where he dropped out of high school one
fall Dennis was reunited with his father, Derrick Crosby of Urbana,
whom he hadn't seen in seven years.
dad told me about this program... and I decided it was just the
thing I needed," said Dennis.
8 a.m., the teens switched from their sweats to formal military
uniforms and headed to the east lot of the property for formation
training. There they practice marching and other traditional military
the cadets headed to Grissom Hall classrooms for three hours of
Hall is in the same building that houses the Octave Chanute Aerospace
Museum. The academy's section includes a large number of classrooms
and laboratories left vacant when Chanute closed in 1993.
Challenge has its own library, with books provided by donors and
the Lincoln Trail Libraries System.
youths take classes in math, reading, science and other academic
subjects, sitting in traditional high school desks as National Guard
staff members provide lectures and work with overhead projectors.
Challenge also has seven computer labs in Grissom Hall and two more
in the residence hall. There, the teens practice their keyboarding
skills and learn how to use computers.
afternoons, Lincoln's Challenge is a beehive of activity. The cadets
are divided into 10 teams, each of which is involved with different
activities on the campus. Some days they do their laundry. Other
days they help do sweeping, cleaning and general maintenance on
members of the team dress alike. Sometimes they wear formal military-styled
uniforms, but visitors are just as likely to see them wearing parkas,
sweats or T-shirts and shorts, depending on the activity involved.
a visitor approaches or walks by a cadet, the cadet stops whatever
he or she are doing, stands at attention and responds to questions
by saying, "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "Yes,
ma'am," or "No, ma'am."
boys and girls also take part in intramural sports, do community
service work and receive counseling in job skills, sex education,
nutrition and life coping skills.
cadets eat dinner at 4:45 p.m., they spend their evenings doing
homework or taking part in extracurricular activities.
extracurricular time, the facility looks pretty much like any other
high school, with some teens working on the yearbook and school
newspaper, others playing on the boys' and girls' basketball teams.
academy also offers youths chances to be on a drill team, act in
a school play, join the chess or astronomy club, run for student
council and even plan the school prom.
are out at 9 p.m. After a day of fast action, Dennis said it didn't
take him long to sleep.
Bell had probably the shortest distance to travel to reach Lincoln's
18, lives in Rantoul. He said he dropped out of Rantoul Township
High School during his senior year because he was falling behind
in getting credits. Bell said the most difficult adjustment for
him was learning how to take part in physical training exercises.
hardest thing for me was learning how to do a four-count push-up,"
said Bell, "I was pretty lazy, and it is like two push-ups
four-count push-up is really three push-ups in one, according to
Steigmann. Starting at a front leaning position, the participant
pushes himself up three different times before returning to the
said the biggest challenge for her was learning how to be on time
to stand at attention by a wall.
everybody isn't on the wall on time, that means more time for everybody
to stand on the wall and less time for chow."
Alexander enrolled at Lincoln's Challenge, she originally planned
on going out for the cheerleading team. But she said she learned
to love running and joined the cross-country team instead.
never did much running before I came here, but the staff here helped
me to learn an appreciation for fitness," she said.
she wasn't running with the rest of the cadets on the streets of
Rantoul, Alexander helped write articles for the academy's yearbook
and typed stories for the school newspaper.
Alexander arrived on the snow-covered grounds of Chanute in January,
she planned a career in the military.
by graduation time she changed her career goal to criminal justice.
She intends to enroll at Parkland College this fall to study law
initially was shy and said she was afraid of leadership positions.
By May she had become a squad leader, wearing a yellow rope as she
called out directions to fellow squad members.
have to tell everybody what to do and lead by example," she
said, "I'm in the front of the formation. I was kinda surprised
said the most rewarding part of her time at Lincoln's Challenge
was working with 6-year-old boys and girls at Wiley School in Urbana
as part of her community service work.
said he was a little nervous at first.
first week was difficult for me because I didn't know anybody,"
said Burton, "I just tried to be brave and stay calm. The sergeants
are in your face and sometimes can be rough on you, but if you calm
down, you can make it."
Burton, the turning point was the day he joined the school choir,
"The Voices of Lincoln's Challenge."
used to sing in the church choir and in my junior high choir back
at home, "said Burton. "I guess it was my natural talent."
Burton revealed a sheepish grin. "Besides, that's how I get
the choir, Burton met a female cadet named Nina Mims from Chicago.
By the end of the school year, Burton asked her to be his date at
the Lincoln's Challenge prom.
were friends at first, but later it became a relationship,"
said he gained a lot of skills during his five months in Rantoul.
learned how to make a bed, how to clean a latrine real good, community
service, the proper way to pick up hay," he said. "I wouldn't
have learned any of that back in East St. Louis."
of all, Burton said, he gained an appreciation for religion.
been going to church ever since I've been here," said Burton.
"When one of my cousins died, I told my mom I'd pray for the
family. My mom said this was a big difference because she never
heard me talk like that before.
was running away from church before I came here. Now I'm pushing
myself to go to church."
said he plans to join the Air Force and learn mechanics.
I'd like to go to college and get a degree," said Burton. "After
that, I want to open my own mechanics shop."
underwent some of the biggest changes of all during his five months
his first month on campus, Tobias said, he wanted to go to culinary
school and become a cook. But months of job training and counseling
helped him change his goal.
I want to go to Parkland College this fall to major in aerospace
studies," said Tobias, "I ultimately want to become a
fighter pilot in the Air Force."
said the boot camp training and atmosphere made him want a military
place opens up a lot of options for you," said Tobias.
said the one-on-one attention he received at Lincoln's Challenge
helped him to master math and science for the first time in his
couldn't hack science in a traditional school," said Bell.
"But here the instructors give you the attention and motivation
you need to learn."
was in charge of the sound system when Lincoln's Challenge put on
its first-ever school play May 17.
gain a lot of pride when you work with other people to put on a
quality stage production," said Bell. "I was proud to
be a part of it."
said he thought about quitting in late February because he was homesick.
a heart-to-heart talk from Sgt. Forrest Tardiff helped change his
talked to me and convinced me to tough it out," said Bell.
"He told me the program wasn't as long as it may seem and that
the days would go by fast. I was glad he did."
Bell hopes to join the Air Force.
gained his first experience with politics at Lincoln's Challenge,
getting elected to the school's student council.
also ran for the sergeant-at-arms of the student council. He lost
that election, but said the experience was quite valuable. Dennis
said the biggest skill he gained at Rantoul was typing.
I arrived here, I could only type five or six words a minute on
a computer keyboard," said Dennis. "I spent lots of time
in the computer lab, and now I can type 22 words a minute."
his community service work, Dennis did manual labor at Allerton
Park near Monticello. "I raked leaves and did some farm work,"
said Dennis. "I put posts up, dug ditches and cut down trees.
It was very rewarding work."
Dennis clutched his Lincoln's Challenge diploma on Wednesday, he
said he plans to enroll this fall at Parkland College to study business.
like to own my own business some day," said Dennis. "I'm
not sure what kind, but I'm confident the folks at Parkland will
help me to find out."
I first came to Rantoul, I was a boy," said Dennis with a big
smile. "Here I basically learned how to be a man, accepting
the responsibilities that come with adulthood."