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Against the Odds, on the Racetrack and in Life

Rookie racing sensation JR Hildenbrand drives for a program that helps high school dropouts get their acts together.

With an average speed topping 91 mph and a margin of victory clocking under 3 seconds, the Long Beach Grand Prix leaves drivers with a lot to be worried about.

“Are you kidding me? What’s got me most concerned out there? How about the other drivers?” National Guard and Panther Racing team driver JR Hildebrand cracked on his way to pit row Saturday.

“Just like those kids, I have to find a way to push forward to the next challenge and leave the past behind me,” the rookie Indy racer said, referring to Youth ChalleNGe, an organization he sponsors through the National Guard.

ChalleNGe operates the Sunburst Academy at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base. Sunburst is a 5.5-month live-in military-style school for students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk and need a little refinement before setting out into the world.  Some have a history of gang involvment, drugs or abuse by parents. 

After they apply, ChalleNGe chooses the teens deemed most at risk, and gives them a second chance. Cadets spend 22 weeks at one of the program's residential boot camps, such as the Sunburst Academy, and then are mentored by an adult leader. 

"The biggest resistance we ever find to the program is when people hear that they have one coming to their area," said Ashley Saunders, communications director for the National Guard Youth Foundation. "They're concerned because a lot of these kids have been in trouble in the past."

More than 100,000 teens have completed the ChalleNGe program, which started in 1993. The organization measures its success by how many members finish high school and move onto jobs, college or the military. In 2009, 91 percent returned to or graduated from high school--or received a GED, according to a press release. About a third went on to college, 14 percent enlisted and 47 percent joined the workforce.

Cadet Joseph Mendoza credited the program with giving him a new outlook after his entire family went to jail. "The past is history, the future is a mystery," he said Saturday. "After I graduate, I want to be an Army ranger."

As the program grows, officials hope more internships will be made available to graduates. ChalleNGe has also awarded more than $400,000 in scholarships.

"We wanted to let the National Guard do this because they are our nation's teachers, policemen, doctors," said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs. "Who better to help prepare these kids for lives as adults? I ask you to come up with one program that has the high school graduation rates we do."

Panther racing team owner John Barnes also endorsed the program. "When you know that you've been a part of something that has really made a difference in somebody's life, every day feels great," he said. 

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