Through the window of the juvenile detention center, Delrick Sankey watched as students executed military drills at the Belize Youth Challenge Program (BYC) across the street, and wished to be among them. He was 14 years old and serving a nine-month sentence in Belize City.
“I was an at-risk youth. I didn’t have self-esteem and didn’t know what to do with my life,” said Sankey, a BYC student who as of (date) has completed seven of the 10-month residential program. “I used to see them [students] doing physical training and playing; I told myself that I wanted to be like them; if they could do it, so could I.”
Sankey’s old days are over. When he was released from juvenile center, he enrolled at BYC.
“BYC is for young men willing to make a change in their life,” said Sankey. “I am ready to go back into society and leave behind all the bad things I used to do.” He dreams to join the Belize Coast Guard.
BYC is an alternative educational program for young men age 15 to 17 at risk of getting involved in criminal activities or dealing with negative behaviors. BYC was founded in November 2016, when the National Youth Cadet Service Corps was reorganized. The program, modeled after the Louisiana Army National Guard’s (LANG) Youth Challenge Program (YCP), opened its doors in October 2017.
BYC falls under the Belize Ministry of Defence and the Belize Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation. The Belize Defence Force (BDF) and the Community Rehabilitation Department manage the program.
“Our mission is to intervene in and reclaim the lives of at-risk youth to produce young men with the values, skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults,” said BDF Captain Ivan Locario, acting deputy commandant of BYC. “Our end goal is to make productive citizens of the nation.”
Davin López, a 15-year-old from Seine Bight village, south of Belize, didn’t dream of a better future a year ago. Expelled from high school, he was involved with drugs, street fights, and burglaries.
After learning about BYC through a radio advertisement, he applied for the program and got in. López, a BYC student scheduled to graduate in July, aspires to become a chef and is determined to be a good citizen, and help others.
“At first, I didn’t want to follow the rules at BYC, but now it’s different. I am self-disciplined and the instructors have helped me a lot,” said López. “If I hadn’t found BYC, I would be dead.”
BYC has 40 students from around the country with the opportunity to learn away from the traditional school system. Cadets pick up military values, discipline, teamwork, vocational skills, and academics. The program also provides counselors, social workers, and mentors.
“Our work is in the best interest of the young man,” said Cap. Locario. “The structure and discipline that we display every day shows the cadets that it doesn’t matter where they’re from, or how they started, it’s how they finished; the discipline we bring to the table and the stories we relate, allows cadets to realize they can make a difference in their lives.”
The program has two phases: residential and post-residential. During the 10-month residential phase, cadets learn about life coping skills—such as anger management and self-esteem—take literacy classes, prepare for exams to seek their high school education, and participate in vocational training, such as agriculture, woodworking, and hospitality. After graduation, cadets go back home to start the 12-month post-residential phase, where they continue their education or join the workforce with the community and mentors’ support.
LANG supports the youth program
LANG and BDF have a strong partnership since 1996 under the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program. In 36 years, the institutions exchanged training, combined exercises, disaster preparedness, and humanitarian assistance.
In 2014, LANG started working with BDF’s youth program, sharing lessons and experiences from their YCP. Established in 1993, YCP targets young men and women age 16 to 18 in a 17-month program. So far 24,025 cadets have graduated.
“Our objective with BYC is no different than our Youth Challenge Program in Louisiana: to try to give the youth an opportunity to excel, live their dreams, and contribute to society in a positive manner,” said U.S. Major General Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general for LANG. “BYC is going to grow. BDF instills a sense of pride, responsibility, and discipline in these young men.”
“As a society, whether it is Belize or Louisiana, we help our young men and women to give them an opportunity to succeed and pass it on to the next generation,” concluded Maj. Gen. Curtis.