After completing rehabilitation in Marietta, Ga., Puig said his probation officer asked him to consider attending the Georgia National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon, a program designed to provide at-risk youth with a military-style approach to teaching academics and life skills.
Puig, fascinated by the idea of a more structured approach to earning his GED diploma, said he entered the program on his own terms.
“I wanted to make my mom proud,” the 18-year-old said. “I didn’t have an education, but I’ve got my GED now.”
Puig was among 188 cadets graduating from Fort Gordon’s 26th Youth Challenge Academy class who were honored at James Brown Arena on Saturday. The program began with more than 300 cadets.
When the cadets entered, the building erupted in cheers as members of the audience held homemade signs congratulating their loved ones.
“They’ve made it,” Director Jerome Lyles said before the ceremony. “A lot of challenges. A lot of struggles. But they came through it at the end. The ones that wanted to be here are graduating today.”
Graduates were presented with scholarships for their achievements in the program since March. Lyles gave special recognition to Kaleb Sloan for earning the highest scores by a cadet in the program’s 13-year history at Fort Gordon.
Army Col. Stephen Elle, the guest speaker, told cadets to remember the lessons they have learned.
“If you learn nothing else while you were here, I hope you learn that you can do anything that you set your mind to,” he said. “You can do it if you make it a goal and a priority and get it done.”
Elle talked about a boy he knew while growing up in Yankton, S.D., who dropped out of high school and seemed to lack meaning in his life.
That boy was Elle, who said that despite having a troubled past, he has managed to live a successful life as a soldier, a husband and a father to his four children. Elle went on to earn four degrees.
“Life is a do-it-yourself project,” he said. “The decisions and choices you make today build the house you live in tomorrow. So build yourself an awesome house.”
Puig said he plans to attend college so he can join the military as an officer, though he hasn’t decided which branch yet. He has his sights on the University of Georgia.
Puig said he leaves the Youth Challenge Academy with one message in mind.
“Don’t start something unless you can finish it,” he said. “That’s how I looked at it the whole way.”