10 female cadets of Youth Challenge Academy plant native trees at Pōhakuloa Training Area

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Ten female cadets from the Hawai’i National Guard Youth Challenge Academy planted native trees last month at the U.S. Army Garrison Pōhakuloa Training Area.

It was part of a long-standing partnership to provide cadets with meaningful experiences at the military base on the Big Island.

The Youth Challenge Academy is a community-based program that leads, trains and mentors 16- to 18-year-old high school dropouts so that they may become productive citizens in America’s future.

  • Youth Challenge Academy cadets getting their first taste of an MRE (Meals Ready to Go) at U.S. Army Garrison Pōhakuloa Training Area, February 23, 2023. Photo: Amy Phillips/Pōhakuloa Training Area
  • Youth Challenge Academy cadre and cadets at U.S. Army Garrison Pōhakuloa Training Area with installation staff, February 23, 2023. Photo: Amy Phillips/Pōhakuloa Training Area
  • David Cole botanical program manager with the Center of Military Environmental Land Management (CEMML) showing Youth Challenge Academy cadets the proper way to plant a tree at U.S. Army Garrison Pōhakuloa Training Area, February 23, 2023. Photo: Amy Phillips/Pōhakuloa Training Area

“We have students from many different backgrounds…and we provide them with life skills, jobs skills and work with them to develop goals for after graduation,” said Chastise Bacon, the academy’s Hilo program coordinator.

She said these cadets are ‘at promise’ rather than ‘at risk’ to avoid a negative connotation.


“At promise gives them hope,” Bacon said.

The cadets were provided information about the military training area’s native plants planting initiative and shown how to properly plant trees by natural resources staff.

“We have a duty to preserve our surroundings, and the cadets definitely understood that as they planted each tree,” Command Sgt. Maj. Jessica Cho said.

She spoke to cadets about the positive impact each person can make by taking one step at a time. Like the slow growing ʻōhiʻa tree, she said that good things come to those that persevere and never quit.


“I know that the academy provides a great environment for healing, discipline and education, and I’m happy to be able to work with them,” Cho said.

The tree planting event supports the Responsible Citizenship component of the Youth Challenge Academy’s eight core components, and a team work opportunity.

Cadet Shaleah Tacang, who has been with the academy for five weeks, said she had a fun experience planting trees with her cohorts.

Tacang said she likes everything about the program because it is teaching her discipline and team work: “Most of us cope in negative ways and we’re learning to cope in positive ways, which is a really good skill that everyone should have.”


Cadet Chanel Almonte, vice president for Class of 2025 cadets, said: “It’s been hard but it’s helping me become stronger and more motivated. It is teaching me work ethics and team ethics and discipline.”

Cadets live and train at the Hilo academy campus for a 22-week residential phase, and are paired with a mentor for a year to provide guidance as needed.

Dan Cassel, a Pōhakuloa Training Area Operations Specialist, has been a registered academy mentor since 2020.

“I once was a very troubled youth so I can relate to the cadets,” Cassel said. “I had a mentor when I was young so thought it would be a great opportunity to do the same.”

He believes that people should consider being a mentor “to help mold these young cadets and give them guidance, hope and determination to stay on track and not give up.”

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