From gladiator to Marine — a Youth ChalleNGe graduate’s success story

The Kentucky National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe is a 22-week program designed to help at-risk youth get a jump start on life.  With two academies in Kentucky — the Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy at Fort Knox and the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy in Harlan — the curriculum covers extensive academic studies geared toward completing a high school diploma as well as physical fitness, leadership and community awareness projects.

Following is commentary from USMC Tara Ratterree, a graduate of the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy’s inaugural class ….

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United States Marine Tara Ratterree is a graduate of the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy’s 2012 inaugural class. (Photo courtesy Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy)

HARLAN, Ky. — Before I heard about the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy, I was at an alternative school. I wasn’t the best student growing up. I had been pushed out of my original high school, for many reasons. I had been told I was a problem child, that I would never amount to anything, and I would end up like my siblings. My grades weren’t the best while in high school. My credits were at the junior level when I was supposed to be a senior. When I was first informed about the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy by my principal, I was all for it.

The only time I ever felt good at anything was in JROTC. I knew it was right for me so I went.While at the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy, I learned self reliance out of everything. I realized you can’t just hope for the best without doing anything.

While at the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy I worked to get noticed. I was put in Color guard, Special DNC Platoon, I was chosen to go to the capital for the congress meeting, I was chose to tour Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini and guests around the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy for the first time and received a General Officer Coin, I was in student council, I was awarded the physical fitness award for my platoon, and most likely to go into the military. Best of all I earned the amount of credits needed for me to graduate high school. The Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy can change anyone, but only if they put out effort. If they just let everyone else carry them to the end then they will never change. It’s all what you put into it. I worked hard at the academy and it paid off in the end.

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Cadets Tara Ratterree (left) and Laura Huff talk with Kentucky Adjutant General Edward W. Tonini on the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy campus. (Photo courtesy Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy)

The day after graduation I enlisted In the United States Marine Corps. I wanted a running start to my future. I shipped out to boot camp to Parris Island, South Carolina on February 25th, 2013. Boot camp is a lot different than the Ap-palachian ChalleNGe Academy. What I learned from the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy helped me through it. Learning to be a team, core values, physical fitness, dealing with home-sickness and learning to push yourself even when times seem the hardest. I always knew I wanted to join the military even before the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy, but I don’t think I would have ever done it if I never at-tended the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy. They gave me the confidence I needed to go forward.

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Like father, like daughter — Tara Ratterree and her father, former Marine Jerry Ratterree. (Photo courtesy Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy)

Not only did I learn a lot from the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy but I also learned from the staff and cadre. They’re some amazing individuals. They let me know I could do anything. Without them the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy is nothing. I just came back from visiting the Acad-emy and it has changed a lot. Upgraded more than anything, it’s a great feeling though knowing I was there where the new cadets are now. It shows anyone can do it. Not just going to the military either, go to college, or get a job. Excel from what you were doing before. It’s possible even from where I was. That’s coming pretty far. I feel I owe the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy for everything they’ve done for me.

There were good times and bad times at the Academy. There were times I just wanted to quit and go home. There are things I wish I could change or could have done better but I’m still glad they happened because I’d prefer to learn from it and not do it again. Through everything that happened at the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

My name is Tara Ratterree and I will always be a 3rd Platoon Gladiator.

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