|Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program changes life of Prineville teen
Story and photos by Spc. April Dustin, Oregon National Guard Public Affairs
BEND, Ore. - Nicholas Hammel of Prineville dropped out of Crook County High School at age 16. He spent his days doing drugs, skateboarding and partying with friends. When his mom Misty Grover confronted him about skipping school, he moved out of her house.
"She says I ran away, but I say that I moved out," Hammel said.
Six months later, Hammel realized he had hit rock bottom.
"I looked around one day and saw that everyone I was hanging out with was doing drugs, they had dingy clothes, they were stealing to make ends meet, and fighting to survive," said Hammel. "I wanted to have a better life."
To spend some time with this articulate, respectful 17-year-old – who now stands tall, looks people in the eyes and shakes hands with a firm grip – you'd never guess that he used to waste every day smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.
Hammel was faced with a pivotal decision one day when his mom called him, she told him about the Oregon Youth Challenge Program, a state-wide, military-modeled alternative school managed by the Oregon National Guard and the Oregon Department of Education. His mother begged him to do her one favor; attend the school's orientation day to learn about the program.
"She brought my brother (Colby, age 11) into it, because she knows how much I care about him," Hammel said. "My little brother looks up to me, and I don't ever want him to do the things I was doing. If I ever caught him skipping school and doing drugs, I'd pound him."
Grover took Hammel to the orientation at the OYCP school in Bend where they learned what his fate would entail.
The program includes a 22-week resident phase where students live in a military-structured setting, attend class everyday, conduct physical fitness everyday, and complete 80 hours of community service. Graduates of the program earn eight high school credits to return to their public high schools, some earn a high school diploma and others earn a General Education Diploma.
"After orientation I said no way, I'm not going there, it looks like jail," Hammel said.
Three months later, Hammel changed his mind and decided to attend the school so he could move back in with his family.
"I finally realized that I need my family close to me because they care about me," he said.
When Hammel arrived at OYCP and realized how difficult it was, he wanted to go home
"It has been hell since day one. It's not a walk in the park," he said. "The first two weeks really suck, especially when your cadre are prior Marines."
"He came here kicking and screaming since day one, he didn't want to be here," said Hammel's first squad cadre leader Ed DuPont, a Prineville resident who has been a cadre member of OYCP since 1995.
A phone call with his little brother changed Hammel's attitude, as Colby begged him to graduate the program so that he could move back into his mom's house.
"Family is my biggest motivator, they keep me going - especially my little brother, he is absolutely loyal to me," said Hammel, who is now one of the top five cadets in his platoon. He is also a member of the OYCP Drill Team, performing military drill and ceremonies.
"To be a member of the drill team you have to go through a pretty intense interview process, where you perform (drill and ceremonies) in front of a board of cadre," Hammel said. "Cadets in the drill team are held to a higher standard."
"He has grown by leaps and bounds," DuPont said of Hammel's progress. "He's done a complete 180, I'm really proud of him."
Hammel achieved 10 high school credits, exceeding the OYCP requirement of obtaining eight credits to return to public school.
Hammel will graduate from the resident phase of OYCP on Wednesday and will rejoin his class at Crook County High School on Thursday.
"I hate this place more than anything I've ever hated in my life, but I'm scared to leave," said Hammel. "The real challenge will begin when I get home."
Once Hammel returns home, he will still have to go through a mandatory 12-month mentor phase, in which his progress will be monitored by an adult that Hammel chose to help him stay on track with his education and behavior.
"The mentors are the key to this program because it keeps the students on track for one year following their resident phase," said Ken Olsen, OYCP community service coordinator. "In all honesty, it's what sets this program apart from all other alternative schools."
Hammel's mentor is Mike Shinkle, Crook County High School teacher and wrestling coach. Hammel has known Shinkle since shop class and wrestling in middle school.
"He's like a father figure to me," Hammel said. "He's the only adult I could ever talk to. He showed me that I could trust him. I tell him things I could never tell my mom."
Shinkle has made mandatory mentor visits with Hammel at OYCP and will help him transition back to public school.
"I've seen him hit bottom, and now he's right back to the top. I'm so proud of him," Shinkle said during a mentor visit with Hammel at OYCP. "Once he made the decision to change on his own, he attacked this program with 100-percent effort, he's owning this place."
Shinkle said he has three sons of his own and would put his own kids through the program if they ever got wrapped up in making bad decisions and decided they wanted to change.
"They have to be ready to change and make a decision to do this for themselves, or it won't work," said Shinkle. "But as a school teacher, I wish it could be a mandatory requirement for kids, because they just don't have the respect and integrity that this program teaches."
Hammel plans to stay busy and spend time with family in order to stay out of trouble once he returns to Prineville. He wants to join the Crook County High School wrestling team and get a part-time job, which will both require him to take urinalysis tests for drug use.
"I'm just going to stay busy," he said. "I have to stay away from people I used to do drugs with, and I can't let myself skip school – not even once."
Hammel plans to graduate on time with his class at CCHS and is looking into options after high school, including military service and attending college at Oregon State University or University of Oregon.
061104-A-5917D-001: Nicholas Hammel, 17, of Prineville completes math course work at Oregon Youth Challenge Program, the Oregon National Guard's alternative high school in Bend. Hammel, who dropped out of high school, earned ten credits at OYCP to rejoin his peers at Crook County High School and graduate with his class on time.
061104-A-5917D-002: A graduation gown hangs on the classroom wall as a motivator while Nicholas Hammel, 17, of Prineville completes math course work at the Oregon Youth Challenge Program in Bend. Hammel, who dropped out of high school, has earned ten credits at OYCP and will rejoin his peers at Crook County High School to graduate with his class on time.
061104-A-5917D-003: Nicholas Hammel, 17, of Prineville stands at attention near his bunk and wall locker at Oregon Youth Challenge Program, the Oregon National Guard's alternative high school in Bend. Students are graded on wall locker inspections and bunk-making skills as part of their disciplined regimen at the military-modeled school.
061104-A-5917D-004: Nicholas Hammel, 17, of Prineville (right) discusses his plans to return to Crook County High School with squad cadre leader Ed DuPont of Prineville (left) at the Oregon Youth Challenge Program in Bend. Hammel, who dropped out of high school, earned ten credits at OYCP to rejoin his class at Crook County High School and plans to join the CCHS wrestling team.
Oregon National Guard Public Affairs