Senior Master Sgt. Jeanie Beck knew there was no going back when she boarded “Con Air.”
That was the nickname given to the 152nd Airlift Wing C-130 that transported Beck and other teenagers to Project ChalleNGe, a Nevada Guard-organized program for at-risk youth with a campus located outside Phoenix, Arizona.
“That was my last chance to run the other way,” said Beck, who graduated the program in 1998. She joined the Nevada Air Guard the following year and is set to surpass 20 years of military service this March. “I knew if I got on the plane, I wasn’t going to continue to be a disappointment. I knew if I got on, I was going to finish it.”
Beck, 39, was one of more than 200 Nevada youth to graduate the program from 1993 to 2009 before it lost state funding during the economic downturn. In addition to serving as an introduction to a military-structured lifestyle, it offered Nevada’s at-risk teenagers an opportunity to earn a GED, college credits and technical skills.
Today, the National Guard Bureau funds a similar program called “Youth ChalleNGe,” with 39 programs operating in 28 states, including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The voluntary, 17-month program (five months in residence; 12 post-residential mentorship) educates, trains and mentors 16-18 year old high school dropouts and at-risk teenagers to help them earn high school credits or a GED certificates.
Although Nevada doesn’t have a Youth ChalleNGe program, one lawmaker is looking to change that.
State Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas and retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, sponsored a bill for the upcoming legislative session — Bill Draft Request 566 — to establish and fund a National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program in Nevada.
The Youth ChalleNGe program “helps kids who need it the most,” said Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, who included partial funding for the program in his proposed budget for the two years beginning July 1. “[It’s for] the youth that are sometimes in need of a role model and shaping up. It gives them an opportunity to move forward to advance themselves, improve upon themselves and become productive contributing members of society.”
The four-month legislative session opened Monday in Carson City. Sisolak’s budget includes $500,000 for the program. That will need to be increased to $1 million in state funds to obtain the required federal funding.
“On an annual basis, if the state funds the program with $1 million, the federal government will match that with $3 million,” said Nevada Air Guard Lt. Col. John Brownell, who has worked to develop a Nevada Guard at-risk youth program in recent years. “And given we already have modernized facilities at the Elko County Readiness Center in Carlin (formerly the University of Nevada, Reno’s Fire Science Academy), it’s a very realistic goal for Nevada to establish a Youth ChalleNGe program here in the state.”
A consequence of the Great Recession, Nevada lawmakers held a Special Session in 2008 to cut spending and combat the state’s mounting deficit. Back then, legislators chopped funding of a variety of state programs, including the Nevada Guard’s at-risk youth program. All Nevada funding for the program was cut by 2009.
Beck remembers testifying to lawmakers when the program was on the chopping block a decade ago.
“We [the Nevada National Guard] tried to convince them how important the program was to me and so many other people,” said Beck, who works today as the asset management supervisor for the 152nd Mission Support Group.
Beck dropped out of Carson High her junior year. She admits her friends cared more about ditching class and hanging at “smokers’ corner” than applying themselves at school.
“I was making stupid teenage choices,” Beck said. “Looking at everything, had I busted my butt, I could have graduated. I dropped out my junior year and tried to do night school. That wasn’t working. One of my friends went to Project ChalleNGe. I started asking questions about it.”
In 1998, Beck was selected as one of only a few to attend a one-week pre-challenge at the Plumb Lane Armory in Reno where she was briefly introduced to military life. Her instructors barked orders. She did pushups, ate military chow and slept in a cot. At the end of the week, Beck was approved to attend Project ChalleNGe.
Beck earned her GED, one of four Nevadans to graduate in her class.
The revamped version of the program Beck attended, now-called Youth Challenge, helps students earn their high school diploma or high school credits so they can return to their home high school and earn their diploma there.
After she entered the military, Beck went on to earn an associates in applied science logistics from the Community College of the Air Force. She is married to Nevada Army Guard Sgt. Maj. Rick Beck and has two stepdaughters, 21 and 18, and one son, 9.
“It showed me that I was not just essentially some punk teenager,” Beck said. “It showed me I had to get my crap together. In my mind, I wasn’t going to amount to anything if I didn’t change the way I thought or changed the way I behaved.
“If I hadn’t done it, I would not be where I am today.”