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Freestate Contributes Mentorship to Maryland’s Youth

By Chazz Kibler | Public Affairs Manager

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, EDGEWOOD AREA, Md. — As teenagers navigate the complexities of growing up, having a mentor can make all the difference. A mentor can provide guidance, support, and encouragement during a time when adolescents are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to achieve. Mentorship can help teenagers develop confidence, resilience, and a sense of purpose, laying the foundation for success in their personal and professional lives. With the right mentor, teenagers can unlock their full potential and achieve their goals, making mentorship a crucial aspect of adolescent development.

A woman and her young son hold up a signed document and a baseball document.
Cherrie Forman, left, and Caleb Carter pose for a photo to celebrate Carter’s commitment to Freestate ChalleNGe Academy. (Photo by Chazz Kibler)

At the Maryland Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, the program dedicates its mission to providing cadets a chance to improve their future by offering the skills, education, and self-discipline needed to become responsible, productive citizens. During the 12-month post-residential phase, students are assisted by at least one trained mentor from the community for further development. Although Freestate ChalleNGe Academy has a mentorship initiative, every employee plays a part in mentoring the cadets that come into the program.

“When I think about the word mentor, guidance, and teaching are the first words that come to mind,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. William Ruffin, commandant at FCA.

A man briefs an audience.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. William Ruffin, commandant at FCA, briefs parents of cadets enrolled in the program. (Photo by Chazz Kibler)

From a cadre’s perspective, the teaching and guidance they provide to cadets can sometimes come in the form of tough love.

“You have to give them that tough, firm love,” said Ruffin. “But at the same time, you have to listen and watch.”

Ruffin said that consistently taking this approach with the cadets helps them open up and become receptive to what the program offers.

“I’m just here. I’m not going to even do anything for hours. I am just doing me,” said Jose Arriaza, an alumnus from Class 60, in reference to his mindset coming into the program. “And then obviously I was like, ‘Man, all these sergeants here, they think they’re all this and that.’ But I came to realize, like, they’re just here to help us.”

One of the ways the program helps cadets is by offering the mentoring initiative Friendly Matched, which aims to match cadets with familiar faces in their community, i.e., teachers, coaches, or religious or spiritual leaders. Unfortunately, not every cadet who comes through FCA’s door has a mentor readily available.

People gather at a table for administrative reasons.
FCA Cadets stop at an in-processing station staffed by Keith Dickerson, a military youth counselor supervisor. (Photo by Chazz Kibler)

“We have a pool of mentors we rely on,” said Keith Dickerson, a military youth counselor supervisor at FCA. “We often ask parents of graduating classes to reach out and volunteer to mentor because many of them experienced the struggle of finding someone to fill the role for their children.”

Cadets can contact their mentor once a month, and on Mentor Day, mentors are allowed to visit their cadets. During the event, mentors can take their cadets off post for a fun-filled day of activities. On week 13 of the 22-week residential phase, cadets can contact their mentors by phone or email once a week.

“Mentors contribute to the program because they’re right there with their cadet, encouraging them the whole time, just giving them positive reinforcement, and letting them know they can do it,” said Dickerson.

A woman takes a group selfie with cadets.
Melissa Snedden, language arts instructor at FCA, takes a group selfie with several cadets enrolled in the program. (Courtesy photo by Melissa Snedden)

The positive reinforcement the cadets receive leads to a transformation for the better, said Melissa Snedden, language arts instructor at FCA.

“One of the things that we’re seeing post-Covid is that kids are coming into the program at a much lower education level than they did before Covid,” said Snedden. “But they make a lot of progress in the six months they’re here.”

Many of the cadets’ educational progress is attributed to the help they receive from volunteer tutors.

“The more volunteers we have to tutor the kids, the more kids we can allow to come [to tutoring sessions], said Snedden. “Because a lot of kids will sign up for tutoring.”

Alessandro Mejia, left, Jose Arriaza, middle, Class 60 alumnus of FCA, issues gear to Cadet Nasiah Fletcher. (Photo by Chazz Kibler)

One of the program’s ultimate goals is to provide cadets with the tools to pass the General Educational Development test, much like Arriaza did in 2023.

“I was going down a really bad path,” said Arriaza. “I skipped school. I started smoking a lot. And I flunked out because of the things I was doing.”

A cadet hugs his loved one before parting ways to start his journey at Freestate ChalleNGe Academy (Photo by Chazz Kibler)

At some point, Arriaza decided to join FCA and turn his life around.

“[While at Freestate], I ended up joining the color guard. I was in a math club, and I was also in the choir,” said Arriaza.

Like many cadets that came before him, Arriaza has ambitious plans for his future.

“I’m working right now, and I’m going to school for mechanics,” said Arriaza. “Afterward, I’m going to pursue welding because they gave me the trade here.”

An African proverb conveys the message that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and FCA has been a staple in many proverbial Maryland villages for 30 years. If you or someone you know has a teenager who may benefit from the program, they can learn more at

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