Janet Zimmerman often uses the word “challenge” when describing the job she is leaving after 12 years.
It seems a given for a program with that word in its name: the Fort Gordon Youth Challenge Academy.
But the struggles she has met and overcome as the academy’s inaugural director are of a different nature than those faced by the high school students voluntarily coming to Fort Gordon searching for direction and structure.
Some of those challenges are associated with what she calls “running a champagne program on a beer budget.” But it’s also the daily grind of constantly switching roles between disciplinarian and cheerleader.
“It’s easy to get discouraged, it really is,” Zimmerman said. “But then … a kid will say something that just absolutely reminds you of why you do your job.”
Under Zimmerman’s leadership, Fort Gordon’s academy has maintained a 70 percent graduation rate.
Francis Williams, the state director of the Georgia National Guard’s youth programs, said Zimmerman is a perfectionist who was always trying to improve the program. And in most cases, he said, she did.
“She had a class act going on there,” Williams said.
Zimmerman, 58, grew up in Connecticut with dreams of becoming the first female state trooper. She admits with a smile that it was the Smokey hats and aviator glasses that attracted her to the job. But the patrol wasn’t hiring women, so Zimmerman turned to the Connecticut National Guard, thinking she would try law enforcement later in life with military service on her résumé.
The Guard – and then active duty in the Army – turned into a career, and she received her officer’s commission in 1977.
Zimmerman was approaching retirement in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel when she was included in a briefing with Fort Gordon’s commanding general about bringing Youth Challenge to the post. The concept of teaching, coaching and mentoring students
sounded to her like a perfect match for her skills.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Zimmerman said. But “it took every bit of Army experience and training for me to be able to do this well.”
Students from all over Georgia are enrolled into two classes that begin in March and September and last for 5 ½ months. After the residential phase, the students are mentored for an additional year to successfully complete the program. About 425 students graduate every year.
It’s done in a strict, military-style atmosphere, but Zimmerman said it became clear in the beginning that some of the
methods used in real boot camps with Army recruits weren’t going to apply to these cadets.
A reward system plays a central role in maintaining discipline. Good behavior earns privileges that are physically manifested as stripes and ribbons on the cadet’s uniform. By the time they graduate, “they look like dictators of small nations,” Zimmerman said. “Each is an accomplishment and represents the trappings of success.”
In a similar fashion, poor behavior takes away privileges. But, with the exception of inclusion into the elite reconnaissance unit, all privileges can be reinstated through hard work. The idea is to instill early in life a sense of accountability for all actions, good or bad.
“It happens at different times, but they figure out they’d rather be doing right and recognized for those accomplishments,” Zimmerman said.
She officially retired with the class that graduated March 3, and she expects to take some time off to visit her grandchildren. But after regaining some energy, she plans to start a mentoring business for youths.
“I’m not the type to sit down and do nothing,” Zimmerman said.