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FOX 11 Investigates: Programs to help at-risk teens get back on track

Cadets walk in formation at the Wisconsin Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, January 18, 2018 (WLUK).

(WLUK) -- FOX 11 Investigates is taking a closer look at two youth programs designed to get kids back on track before it's too late.

Twice a year about 150 teenagers come to Fort McCoy.

"We are like the military, but we are not the military," said Kevin Greenwood, director of the Wisconsin Challenge Academy.

"Challenge Academy is for those middle ground kids, those kids that are struggling in high school, not likely to graduate," added Peter Blum, Deputy Director of Admissions, Recruitment and Community Relations at the Challenge Academy.

The alternative education program, run by the National Guard, is designed to help at-risk teens get their lives back on track.

Click here for more information on the Wisconsin Challenge Academy

"It's good to be here," said 18-year-old cadet Nate Vanden Avond.

He would be a senior in high school but says he dropped out of school.

"I wasn't being nice to people I should have. I was on a path to pretty much self-destruction," Vanden Avond said.

Nate's parents dropped him off at the Challenge Academy last month with high hopes.

"I'm very happy with what he's been doing in the last couple of months and he told me last night he's ready to start a new challenge," his mother Tracie Vanden Avond said. "

The centerpiece of the program is a five and a half month stay at Fort McCoy where cadets continue their education and learn self-discipline.

"Some kids need to get out of their current environments to start anew," Blum said.

Blum has been with the Challenge Academy since it began in Wisconsin in 1998. It is one of 40 programs across the country.

"This is a lot like real life," he said. "This is a lot of hard work and boredom. Sixteen hour days. They're being told what to do all day every day."

The Challenge Academy is not for everyone. In fact, out of about 150 cadets who made it to Fort McCoy only about 100 are expected to make it through the program.

"That's part of the difficulty of what we do here. Change is painful. Change is tough," Blum said.

The Challenge Academy accepts boys and girls 16-18 years old who have either dropped out, been expelled or are one year behind in school. Teens who have been in trouble with the law are allowed if they don't have any felonies.

"We're an intervention program so we're trying to get these kids before they get that felony," Blum said.

Another program, near New London, is designed for more serious offenders.

"A lot of these kids are coming from the juvenile system. So, they've gotten in trouble some way. They're not going to corrections but they need some systematic help," said Alan Loux, president of Rawhide.

"This is for the ones who have gotten in trouble with the law. This is for ones who have multiple mental diagnoses. They will be people who have some issues that they need to deal with," Loux said.

Rawhide runs a residential program where 30 to 40 teens live on site, go to school on site and take part in therapy.

Click here for more information on Rawhide

Rawhide runs a residential program where 30 to 40 teens live on site, go to school on site and take part in therapy.

"This is all about helping change their life and if there's any way we can help put one kid back on the right course, it's worth it," Loux said.

Steven Vander Zanden came to Rawhide as a teenager in the mid-80s.

"I had a bad habit of stealing, whether it was shoplifting or cars," Vander Zanden said.

"When I left Rawhide, I left on a negative note. I was placed in Lincoln Hills and stayed in Lincoln Hills for approximately three years," Vander Zanden added.

He eventually turned his life around and has spent the last five years as a teacher's assistant at Rawhide.

"I like to think I'm able to give back and have a better understanding of what the kids are going through because I went through some of the similar things," Vander Zanden said.

According to Rawhide, 80% of the teens who come to the program are sent by a judge. Over at Fort McCoy, a judge can recommend a teen for the Challenge Academy, but Blum says it's really up to the teens.

"We sit the kids down before they come to us and we want to hear what they have to say. It doesn't matter what the parents say, judge says. It's the kid's decision, do you want to come in or not? And that's what we base accepting the kids into the program on," Blum said,

Do the programs work?

Of those who finish the Challenge Academy, 70% are either working or going to school full-time one year after graduation. Rawhide says 75% of its teens are not back in the system after one year.

As for the costs, both programs receive government funding. Rawhide receives about 30% of its funding from the state. The other 70% comes from donations.

The Challenge Academy is completely funded by taxpayers: 75% by the federal government and 25% by the state.

"When you look at the dollars we spend on juvenile corrections, adult corrections. It just starts growing and growing. The problems don't go away. So, we, as a society, the more money we can get in on the front end to try to stop these kids from living a life of crime and drug abuse, it's well spent," Blum said.

For teens like Nate Vanden Avond, it's a chance at a fresh start.

"I want to turn it around and make something out of myself," Vanden Avond said.

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