By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Out in the dusty boondocks of east Mesa, a blue sign is posted next to Power Road. It tells motorists that the highway has been adopted by Project Challenge. There is no litter in sight.
"Don't Waste Our Space," insists the sign.
The same slogan should be tattooed on the 141 kids who arrive at Williams Gateway Airport/ASU East Campus this week in June. They'll go through a physically and emotionally taxing week of Pre-Challenge.
Anyone who makes it through the week and impresses the staff will be invited back for the full, five-month Project Challenge experience.
There's a reason these kids are at a boot camp instead of summer camp. They've either dropped out or been drop-kicked out of school. Some are full-time gangbangers. Parents can't reach them and teachers couldn't teach them.
Up to this point in their lives, society would say they've done little more than waste space.
If anyone of you doesn't mean business let him say so now. . . . Once in, you've got to see it through.
Remarks to Recruits 1898.
From the Project Challenge student manual.
Mike Graser sits at a desk in the main office of Project Challenge. He's decked out in the gear that all Project Challenge staff wears--camouflage pants, a black tee shirt and black Army boots. An autographed picture of George Bush is framed near his desk, congratulating Graser on his retirement from the Army as an aviation first sergeant.
Since 1993, Project Challenge has been reclaiming high school dropouts with punk attitudes. The program breaks these kids down using strict military discipline and rebuilds them into someone who can live and contribute in a free society.
Charged with this mission are the Challenge Instructors (CIs). Respected and feared by the students, the CIs are mainly active National Guard personnel who hack off the rough edges of the goons brought to them. They've all been through the rigors of basic training. This is their job and their revenge.
"Somewhere along the line, the parents dropped the ball," says CI Dave Owens. "We're here to pick it up and run with it."
Graser has reason to boast about the accomplishments of Project Challenge. Arizona was one of 15 states chosen by the National Guard Bureau to start the program in '93. In that time, 1,349 students have entered the boot camps, and 72 percent have graduated.
Graduates are required to do more than get their GED--general equivalency diploma. Some will leave with up to 11 college credits and scholarship money. Each student must complete 100 hours of community service.
Most important, graduates will obtain some tools to help them deal with the demons that brought them to Project Challenge.
This is difficult for gang members. Their crew will see involvement in the program as a betrayal. Most of the bangers at Project Challenge view the program as their only avenue of escape.
Dan Zorich, the case manager for the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, provides tattoo removal for students who want to clean up their skin along with their lives. Many will enter a branch of the armed forces after graduation. Zorich says the military won't take anyone with visible tattoos anymore. Hidden or visible, gang tats aren't allowed.
Zorich is a big fan of Project Challenge. He believes the boot-camp structure is an effective way to reform a knucklehead.
"It's a way for them to break from their street ties, from the guys that they're hanging with," says Zorich. "It shows them a new peer group and some new things. One thing it does is it takes them off the street for a while. It gives them an opportunity to be away from those other influences, and they start to think on their own."
After the student completes the five-month residential phase, Project Challenge keeps watch over them. Graduates are teamed with a mentor from their area for another 12 months of guidance. Mentors help grads find jobs or get into the military or college.
Chief Challenge Instructor Kathy Yturralde walks into Graser's office. Trailing her is a skinny kid with a buzz cut. He's in the uniform that all the students wear, blue jeans and a white tee shirt. The CCI tells Graser the boy has a tongue stud that he can't take out.
"Get it out or you have to go home," Graser tells the pierced offender. "You've been here before. You know we don't allow any jewelry."
The kid sticks out his tongue and starts yanking at the silver stud. He finally gets it out. The stud pings in the metal trash can.
Graser asks Yturralde if anybody has been kicked out of the program. One guy showed up stinking of booze, she reports. He was sent home before getting the chance to check in.
"I know I'd be a millionaire when I find out a way to stop a teenager from doing something stupid," says Graser.
On the first morning of the Pre-Challenge week, a line of parents and kids snakes out the auditorium door. They are white, black, Latino, and Native American.
One look at the faces tells why these students have come to Pre-Challenge. A few appear eager to get started. This could be their last hope of getting a high school diploma. They're determined to prove their future isn't in front of a welfare counter or behind bars.