Less than two years after suffering a broken rib in a gang fight, Wesley Jones is learning how to take flight.
The Fort Gordon Youth Challenge Academy graduate was awarded one of two $100,000 scholarships by the On Wings of Eagles Foundation to participate in a pilot-training program at TransPac Aviation Academy in Phoenix.
He is one of the first to be selected to receive a full scholarship from the foundation.
"What a professional would consider a minor achievement is huge for me because I came in knowing nothing. In four days I've gone from not knowing anything about an airplane to knowing how to start one and knowing the majority of the pre-flight checklist," he said during a telephone interview last week.
He began training July 27.
The foundation organized the program in 2008 through a partnership with TransPac Aviation Academy and the National Guard Youth Challenge Program. The three-year program is geared toward at-risk and underprivileged youth, said Bud Oaster, the chairman and CEO of the foundation.
During the first year, the cadets complete flight training and receive a Federal Aviation Administration license. For the remaining two years, they enroll in a community college to work on an associate's degree in aviation management and have a job as a paid intern flight instructor.
Upon completion of the internship and after earning their degree, the cadets are placed with a regional airline as an employee, Mr. Oaster said.
"There are a lot of programs that work with at-risk youth, but when they're done they give them a certificate and send them home. We give them a job, a career," he said. "We are not your typical program."
Mr. Jones said that he has thought about where he could have been if he had stayed on the path he was on.
"If you're living the gang lifestyle, it'll only lead to two places. That's being dead or in a cell," he said.
The 18-year-old had moved from Augusta to Atlanta a few years ago to get away from the gang activity he had participated in since he was 11.
"I didn't really have any connections in Atlanta. My family thought that it would help me get back on track," he said. "It was supposed to help the situation, but I still got in trouble."
He had a brother who was going to the Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Stewart, Ga., and his mother asked him if he was interested, he said.
"To be honest, when she told me about it, I didn't want to go," he said. "I had no intent of going."
That all changed in 2007, when he was injured in a gang fight.
"After the altercation and getting a broke rib, I told her (his mother) that I wanted to go to Youth Challenge," he said. "I had changed my mind."
Soon after starting the rigorous program at Fort Gordon, he began to change, he said.
"I began to like school and like going to school," he said. "I started studying and pushing myself to do well."
In 2008, he graduated first in his class with a 4.0 grade-point average and had earned 14 of the academy's 17 awards.
He was working with the academy as a peer mentor when he learned about the On Wings of Eagles Foundation and the scholarship from staff at the Youth Challenge Academy.
"They had called me to the office one day and asked me what I knew about aviation and whether I was interested in it," he said. "I didn't know much about it. So I researched all the opportunities that are available in aviation, and from that I became really interested in it."
When he was offered the scholarship, he didn't hesitate.
"It was clear I was going to go because they were willing to put that kind of investment in me," he said. "They wanted to invest in my future. That's something I couldn't turn down."
He is looking forward to being a licensed pilot in a year.
"I've grown to love it," he said. "I'm grateful to have this opportunity. I feel blessed. I hope to lay the groundwork for others to have the same opportunity."
Reach Nikasha Dicks at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.