The teens were on a fast track to trouble.

Fortunately, Nathan Mattila, 16, and Michael Chapman, 17, of Butte, said they found a positive detour — the Montana Youth ChalleNGe Academy — that has helped them on their way to a brighter future.

Prior to joining the Dillon-based academy, the teens said they were drinking and doing drugs. Mattila was failing in his classes, and Chapman had already dropped out of school.

“I was hanging with the wrong crowd and needed to do something before I got into legal trouble,” Mattila said.

His mother eventually caught him smoking marijuana, and

demanded that he straighten up. They met with a Butte police officer who suggested the youth academy.

After quitting school, Chapman’s life wasn’t going any better.

“I was heading down the wrong path: drinking a lot, smoking a lot of stuff,” he said.

He had already received two minor in possession citations by police for underage drinking.

John Nugent, the academy’s executive director, said the

program is designed to help young people like Mattila and Chapman. It places at-risk boys and girls ages

16 to 18 through a highly regimented

curriculum of study, physical activity and leadership skills.

The cadets spend the entire six months living in a dormitory as they proceed through the program. The academy, headquartered on the campus of University of Montana Western, is free to applicants, but they must first be accepted into the program.

Though not a boot camp, Nugent said the academy adopts a “military structure.” Sponsored by the National Guard and the state of Montana, the cadets learn military chain of command structure, marching and undergo rigorous physical training.

“You get smart and strong there,” Chapman said, noting that he’s done more pushups at the academy than he’s ever done.

Nugent said many of the adult supervisors, or cadre, come from a military background. They create a strict and structured environment similar to the military.

“It’s the only way to insure discipline in these kids,” Nugent said.

It’s a tough program.

It averages about 100 students per six-month cycle, but only about 80 percent graduate. The first phase of the program is the most difficult as cadets learn to adjust to a orderly environment. The first 10 days are known as “pre-challenge” and Chapman said that’s when the new cadets struggle the most.

“Everybody’s detoxing off their alcohol and drugs, and everyone is fighting,” he said.

The cadets who stay with the program eventually adjust to the strict environment. Both Mattila and Chapman said they learned important life skills and are optimistic about their futures. Chapman plans to get his high school diploma and enroll in the Anaconda Job Corps, where he plans to develop mechanical and welding skills.

Mattila said the academy helped turn him around.

“Once you go through the program, you realize you need to think ahead and get your life ready,” Mattila said.

— Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via e-mail at


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