Last Friday, I accompanied Grow Appalachia technical director Mark Walden to Harlan, Kentucky on a visit to one of our more interesting partner sites, the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy. They are not on our partner site page or blog yet (we’re working on that) because their program has an interesting structure that we’ve been working out a relationship with for the majority of the year. In spite of the logistics, though, their garden looks good, and on Friday we visited them to construct row covers, or “low tunnels”, on several of their raised garden beds. The experience of working with the cadets at the Challenge Academy was unlike any other I’ve had while working with Grow Appalachia, and served as another reminder of how unique my experience here is.

You see, the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy is part of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which seeks “to assist at-risk youth, between [the] ages [of] 16 [to] 18, who have either dropped out of the traditional school setting or are at risk of dropping out.” The Academy consists of a 5-month residential program followed by a 12-month mentoring program. During the residential portion the teens receive education while living a quasi-military lifestyle. They take part in either a credit recovery curriculum or prepare for the GED, while culling many other life skills. From what I saw, it’s a great program and many of the teens really seem to take to it. It was quite an experience being called “sir” by a bunch of young men who looked more capable of construction work than myself. However, it caused me to realize that I do have a good bit of construction experience from the high tunnel builds I’ve worked on, and that it was my job to instruct and delegate tasks to these eager workers.

We worked with two shifts of ten cadets from the 2nd platoon. They stood at attention as their Master Sergeant explained what they would be doing in the garden, but were allowed to stand at ease as Mark gave them more specific instructions. They volunteered readily for different tasks, and got to work right away, often in the pairs already established by their buddy system. I tried to help them with many of the tasks they’d been assigned, but soon realized I was more often than not getting in their way. I then decided that I would be more helpful if I walked around and gave assistance where needed, jumping in when it looked like a cadet was a bit confused or having a bit of trouble. I also took many pictures, however they were on a disposable camera I have yet to get the pictures back from (because I’m an idiot and forgot to bring our digital camera). I’ll make sure to post those as soon as I get them! (The featured image above is from the ACA twitter page.)

I also performed the task I was sent to Harlan for and assisted their journalism instructor, Melinda Dillman, in setting up an account for the blog. Before I arrived at the ChalleNGe Academy, I had worried that they wouldn’t appreciate my camera and many questions about promoting themselves, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They are very excited about their garden and are enthusiastic about promoting their work in the community. Unfortunately, since their breakfast and lunch is regulated by national guidelines, they can’t incorporate the food they grow into those meals. However, dinner is up to them and I’ve been informed that they’ve had great success supplementing their meals with homegrown crops! Mostly, though, they give their food away, either to the local food bank or to certain neighbors who live nearby the Academy that they’ve gotten to know over the years.

The cadets helped us work all day, nonstop except for water breaks. They weren’t prone to getting distracted, except for one moment. They all perked their ears up when the “Platoon of the Month” was announced. (It was 1st platoon this time. Sorry, 2nd platoon!) Once, one cadet made a few jokes that were derogatory towards Harlan, and the Master Sergeant made him do exercises, hyperbolically stating that he had to continue “until this county gets some funding”. That was a powerful demonstration to me of how much the Academy respects this region, and how committed they are to improving the region by trying to help its teenagers, who often haven’t come from the best environments and don’t have many opportunities. Grow Appalachia is therefore proud to partner with the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy, and we should all look forward to what they have to say for themselves in their upcoming blog posts!