Youth academy giving families second chances

Program empowers youths to embrace responsibility and positive behavior

By Megan Erbacher
Evansville Courier & Press

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — The 40-minute car ride from the Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy to the hospital gave way to the longest and most respectful conversation Becky Mann had shared with her son in more than a year.

They were visiting her nephew, who was in a serious car accident, and Robby Mann was able to get a four-hour pass from HYCA.

“In that 40 minutes, he didn’t ask to turn on the radio, he didn’t turn on the radio, it was ‘Yes ma’am,’ ‘I love you mom,’ an ultimate conversation with my son,” Becky Mann said, fighting back tears. “And at that moment, I knew that we’d made the right decision.”

HYCA, in Knightstown, Ind., was established in 2007 under then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, the adjutant general for the state of Indiana. HYCA was developed to change the life path of young men and women between the ages of 16 and 18 who have dropped out of high school, have been expelled, or are severely deficient in credits by bringing structure and discipline to their unfocused lives. The potential cadet must volunteer to attend, be unemployed or underemployed, drug free and have no felony convictions or pending court cases.

Robby Mann, 18, tried Central and Harrison high schools, but preferred to smoke marijuana with his friend, Zach Anderson, 18, than go to school.

“We ended up smoking K2 literally all day, all night,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press. “We would wake up, smoke, fall asleep — same thing every day. We didn’t really care about anything at all. We didn’t have any respect.”

Mann knew something had to change or he and Anderson would land in prison.

HYCA emphasizes eight core components: leadership and followership, responsible citizenship, academic excellence, job skills, life coping skills, health and hygiene, service to community and physical fitness. It is a 17-and-a-half month, two-phase quasi-military-modeled training academy. The residential phase is the first 5 1/2 months, while the post-residential phase is 12 months. During the first five months, students are referred to as cadets and assisted in gaining their General Educational Diploma (GED) if they qualify and learn valuable life skills. Cadets are also encouraged to continue their education in a college, trade or technical school. In the post-residential phase, each cadet obtains additional assistance from a mentor, who offers guidance and advice.

Becky Mann wondered aloud what a person can do as a parent if you drop your child off at school, pick them up and find out they were truant all day. She applauds officials at Harrison for doing everything in their power to help her son. “They did try to address the issues and work with us,” she said. “And finally he (Robby) said, you’re not listening to me, I can’t do this.”

She wanted her son to attend a traditional high school, but she is thankful HYCA was available.

“As much as you try to be supportive and help, you can’t fix their problems,” she said. “They have to do what they can do to fix themselves.”

According to Shari Stites, HYCA southern regional coordinator, the program empowers youths to embrace responsibility, achievement and positive behavior. Stites said the program is offered to residents of Indiana 100 percent tuition free. Each cadet costs $17,500; 25 percent of that is state funded and 75 percent is federally funded. Stites oversees 42 counties in Southern Indiana.

“It’s not that the schools are not doing a good job; the schools are doing a good job,” she said. “But society has taken the structure and discipline away from them.”

Stites said at-risk youth encompass a variety of different scenarios: It could be the kid who sits alone at the cafeteria lunch table, the junior with four credits, or the honor student with truancy problems because they’re forced to stay home with siblings due to family addictions or a single parent working two jobs with no money to pay a sitter. Her advice to the community is to give the kids a chance.

“These kids have had structure and discipline and they will make very good employees,” she said. “You just have to give them a chance.”

Mann doesn’t blame anyone but himself for his past actions. He acknowledges he is struggling today to find full time employment, and misses the discipline, structure and routine HYCA offered every day.

“And just having someone there to support you through the whole day and just keep pushing you forward to just get better and better each day,” he said. “If it was something I could do every day, just to live there, it sounds crazy, but I’d do it ... with a little bit more freedom.”

Mann received a scholarship from HYCA and plans to attend Lincoln Tech soon.

Spencer Bartley, 16, knew he needed an alternative to skipping school and getting arrested. When his assistant principal at Reitz High handed him a pamphlet for HYCA, he and his mother knew it was the right choice. Bartley wasn’t nervous until five minutes before he got there. “You walk in, they say you have two minutes to say goodbye, and then they’re in your face,” he said. “They have to break you down before they can rebuild you ... it’s hectic, but I thought I deserve this, I was being stupid.”

His mother, Tammy Bartley, said he was struggling with what to do and had no motivation. She said it was a blessing to get the pamphlet. After speaking with recruiters, Bartley learned he needs 12 more college credits before he can enlist at 17 in active-duty Army. His plan is to get a temporary job to help pay for classes and enlist by the end of the year.
The last time Cody Smith, 19, was in public school he was a sophomore skipping classes at Boonville High School. Smith said he would be sitting in prison if he hadn’t signed up for HYCA, but now he has his GED and is employed with a construction company.

In the beginning, his mom, Tammy Smith, wasn’t interested and wanted him to stay in a “basic” school so he could continue playing sports, particularly wrestling. But after doing research, she learned HYCA had a high success rate and thought it would benefit her son.

“We had to make a change,” she said. “And it was probably the best decision we ever made. He came back more positive, more disciplined, more respectful. ... I think he learned a lot about what he can do himself.”

The current class at HYCA has seven cadets from Vanderburgh County, and one each from Gibson and Warrick counties. There is no military obligation for those who participate.
“Sometimes kids need to be taken out of the whole situation to be successful,” Stites said. “Do we save them all, no we don’t, but we make a difference.”


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