By Marilyn Miller
(This is the first of a two-part series focusing on the funding, construction and operation of Louisiana’s third Youth Challenge Program (YCP) at Camp Minden in Webster Parish. Part 1 tells the story of the two people who pushed to make it happen. Part 2 will focus on the Youth Challenge Program itself, including facilities, staffing, graduate percentages, economic impact, and the mentoring program)
“IT CHANGES THEM. THEY SEE A FUTURE!”
“I was elected (as Representative for the 10th District, Bossier and Webster Parishes) and I was invited to attend the Youth Challenge Program graduation ceremony at the Louisiana National Guard’s Camp Beauregard,” said Minden’s Jean Doerge, recalling a January 2001 trip to Carville, La., near Pineville. “I just remember how amazed I was at how the cadets sat looking straight ahead. They were so quiet and focused.”
Though a State Representative, Doerge’s efforts to get more information on the program were unsuccessful at that time. But she was determined to learn more about the YCP. She returned to Minden and went to the man who she trusted to have the answers – Colonel Carl Thompson. And they planned a trip back to Camp Beauregard to acquire firsthand knowledge.
This time she got to see the cadets in their YCP/military environment, marching to all classes, meals, and even the “Confidence Course” (obstacle course). She talked to the teenagers and found them to be positive and excited about their futures. She became aware that the program was “a saving thing for them.”
Back in November of 2000, Louisiana National Guard Colonel Carl Thompson had come to LAAP (now Camp Minden) to work on getting the decommissioned ammunition plant transferred from Federal to State ownership. Since it was in her district, Rep. Doerge played a key role in the transfer. But there was a bump in the road.
That bump was the Super Fund program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The program was designed in the 1980’s to investigate and clean up Federal sites contaminated with hazardous substances. LAAP was one of those sites.
“We were afraid that if we (the State) took over ownership of LAAP, we would be stuck paying the bill for the clean-up,” Rep. Doerge said.
In February of 2001, Dr. Doerge traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu concerning the LAAP transfer debate. She also took the opportunity to bring up the Youth Challenge Program.
“Sen. Landrieu said It wouldn’t happen…Louisiana already has two programs, Beauregard and Gillis Long (below Baton Rouge)…funding will never be approved for another YCP,” Rep. Doerge recalled. She reminded the Senator that Louisiana had the highest drop-out rate in the nation. But she argued to no avail. “I left there thinking ‘Well, I just bombed out,’”
Senator Landrieu did, however, put Rep. Doerge in touch with another man who she thought might help. “But he was negative, too. He was just so negative.”
At that point, she started talking to everyone. “When you care about something, you put everything into it. And I did. I kept at Mary, too,” Rep. Doerge remembered.
‘’IT’S SAVING LIVES.’’
It’s been more than 20 years since Louisiana National Guard Major General Bennett Landreneau assigned Col. Carl Thompson to the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant (LAAP) “to get it transferred from Federal to State ownership.” The colonel remembers his arrival at the decommissioned site that November of 2000 like it was yesterday.
“The main gate was closed and there was one guy working by himself — Kennedy was his name…he was so glad to see me,” Col. Thompson recalled. Having come from Camp Beauregard, a virtual city, the darkness and desolation of the one-time thriving ammunitions plant struck a chord with him. The weeds were high, the road was full of potholes, and there were “vines growing up the sides of the buildings.”
“It was dark, and it was depressing,” Col. Thompson offered. Right then, he determined to do something about it. That challenge wasn’t helped by the archaic computer system at the plant.
“We still had dial-up internet service that was routed through Barksdale,” he said. But he soon put together a slide presentation focusing on military training, and he presented it to the Minden South Webster Chamber of Commerce, the City of Minden and the Webster Parish Police Jury.
“Every time I’d leave (a meeting), I’d say to myself ‘there goes another 30 minutes wasted,’” Col. Thompson lamented.
His last visit was to State Representative Jean Doerge’s office on Main Street in Minden. He asked if he could show her a presentation, and she told him — “in that very soft voice,” – “Let’s just have a talk.” And he talked to her about his vision for military training at the LAAP. They discussed who to talk to next and came up with U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and/or U.S Senator John Breaux.
Their meeting concluded, Col. Thompson was stepping out of the door when Rep. Doerge signaled to him and asked, “What about the Youth Challenge Program?”
TWO EFFORTS, TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS
Sen. Mary Landrieu was the keynote speaker for the LA National Guard Officers’ Annual Convention in Alexandria in April of 2001.
“Most of her speech was political,” Col. Thompson recalled. “But half-way through her talk, she made an announcement. She said that she had ‘procured initial two-year funding for a third Youth Challenge Program to be located in north Louisiana.’”
“After her speech, Major General Landreneau jumped off the stage…and ran to the back of the room where I was sitting. He said, ‘Carl, I need you to help me with a plan for YCP!’” And Col. Thompson replied, “General, don’t worry, I already have a proposal for the YCP footprint,” and he told him about his ideas for barracks, classrooms, mess hall, offices, medical clinic, etc.
That same April of 2001, while Rep. Doerge was driving to Baton Rouge, she got a phone call. It was Hunt Downer calling for Major General Landreneau. When the General got on the line, he simply said, “Your program has been approved.” The YCP had been funded for $5 million for two years.
“I thought I’d have a wreck,” Rep. Doerge recalled.
“THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR VALUES”
In July of 2001, construction began on the various buildings that would be used by YCP. Simultaneously, the recruiting and interviewing of potential cadets took place. And after the final selection of cadets, the first YCP Camp Minden class became a reality on Jan. 20, 2002.
“If it had not been for Jean Doerge, there would be no Youth Challenge Program on Camp Minden,” Col. Thompson pointed out.
“They (the cadets) come from environments we can’t even imagine,” he continued. “The YCP gives them a chance at the American Dream – an education, a good job, good benefits, good salaries.”
Rep. Doerge agrees. “So many come from broken homes. Some live on the streets. The YCP gives them the opportunity to learn values. There is NO substitute for values. This program is one of the best at helping young people. It changes them – they see a future. The Youth Challenge Program is one of the most wonderful programs in the State of Louisiana!”
(Part 2 will focus on the economic impact, the support facilities, staffing, graduate percentages, and the mentoring program for the Camp Minden Youth Challenge Program.)