Youth Challenge cadets graduate after being isolated since January because of pandemic

Hawaii Tribune-Herald | Friday, June 19, 2020, 12:05 a.m.

The first class of cadets to be denied all family visits and home passes graduated from the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy on Thursday.

Forty-seven cadets from Class 19 took part in their modified, virtual graduation at the Keaukaha Military Reservation before reuniting with friends and family outside the gates afterward.

The Hawaii Island and Oahu Youth Challenge Academy campuses are two of seven programs that remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 26 years of operation, this is the first time a class has been denied all visits and home passes.

“It was really intense and hard being away from my son,” said Mona Maynard about cadet Sol Benjamin Pace. “But it was worth it, because now he has his whole life ahead of him.”

Instead of getting to visit home during Spirit Week, cadets had to talk to their families via Facetime or Skype where they were also updated with the world’s current events.

Family Day usually allows families to visit their cadets, so they can eat together and get to know more about their cadet’s daily life. But this year, only “virtual” visits were allowed.

“We were lucky because we were still able to spend our Family Day with family,” said cadet Kiana Genda. “Everyone here are my new brothers and sisters. We’re one big ohana.”

After five and a half months of physical and mental challenges, the 47 cadets grew close to each other as the outside world kept spinning.

“With everything going on outside their bubble in the world, the cadets became much tighter-knit than other classes,” said Diana Kelley, director of Youth Challenge Academy. “This was an unprecedented time and an unprecedented class to go along with it.”

The goal for cadets at the Youth Challenge Academy is to reclaim their lives by learning life skills, finishing their high school education and gaining self-discipline necessary to succeed as productive citizens.

“I really am surprised I got my diploma. I didn’t think I would,” Genda said. “The Youth Challenge gives everyone here a second chance.”

Genda was awarded a scholarship from state Sen. Mike Gabbard at her graduation and plans to go on to college soon. Her classmate, cadet Osmond George, plans to enlist in the U.S. Navy.

“I will take the life lessons from the academy far past graduation,” George said. “It’s been a wild ride, but well worth it.”

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