By Sgt. Nathan Baker
Utah National Guard
Following a year-long break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah National Guard invited high school student leaders from around the state to take part in the 59th Annual Freedom Academy held Aug. 1-6, 2021, at Camp Williams, Utah.
Sixty-three students converged to learn from experts representing the full spectrum of civil offices and community leaders. The students, known as delegates, listened to several speakers throughout the week to include; Mike Schlappi, a paralympic athlete who spoke about standing out even though you can’t always stand up; Jay Hess, who shared the struggles of being a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War; Najib Kahoush, who described his experience as a refugee during the Lebanese Civil War; as well as many other inspirational speakers.
“The goal of Freedom Academy is to have our students or our future leaders understand what it takes to keep our freedoms alive here in America,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Lewis, the Freedom Academy director, and commander of the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Security Forces Squadron.
Freedom Academy brings delegates together to learn in a fun and engaging way how the government works and how freedoms are protected.
Delegates learn about civil service through demonstrations, tours and presentations from members of the Salt Lake Unified Police Department, Utah State Capitol, Federal Courthouse, Air National Guard, and Army National Guard.
The students also had the opportunity to learn how our rights are maintained through the freedom of the press and participated in a webcast with journalists and news anchors from Channel 2 KUTV News.
In addition to the lectures and webcasts, the delegates received hands-on leadership training. The delegates participated in a leadership reaction course, which is a series of physically demanding challenges that require teamwork, communication, and determination. Additionally, the week included a speech contest and a talent show. Students shared talents such as tap dancing, playing musical instruments and poetry reciting.
Freedom Academy has a deeper obligation than just to inform high-schoolers about how the government works.
“No matter where they [delegates] end up in their lives,” said Lewis, “when they see military members, veterans, civilians who support their military, law enforcement, and first responders, they understand and respect what they do.”
The Freedom Academy events are designed to expose delegates to things they haven’t experienced before and open their eyes just a little to a broader world.
“This has been one of the best experiences I’ve had,” said Truman Hunt, a senior from Syracuse High School. “I’ve been able to express my appreciation for what they [service members] do for my country. It means a lot. I’ve really learned to have gratitude for those things that I might not have thought about previously.”
Most delegates are the only students from their school and they have never met any of their fellow delegates before. They have to come together in a short time to overcome challenges and they develop bonds in a short amount of time.
“Freedom Academy is a great opportunity and challenges their limits a little bit,” said counselor U.S. Air Force Airman Kiera Mills. “We go to the LRC, and they get to face some height fears, and work as a team and learn to work together. Most of these kids by the time we are going to the LRC have only known each other for 2 days. They are able to mesh very well, and they are forced to, but then they love it.”
Lewis said that Freedom Academy is a labor love and that staff members get to see how the program changes the delegates.
Lewis has participated in Freedom Academy for 22 years. He started off as a counselor and has held various positions over the years, culminating with being the director for the last four years. Many other staff have come back year after year to participate in the Freedom Academy because of the passion and the impact they have for not only the event but their ability to make a positive impact on the delegates' lives.
“I meet fathers and mothers that have been through this program that now want their kids to go through this program,” said Lewis.
One counselor has a special connection to Freedom Academy. Mills has seen both sides of Freedom Academy. She was a delegate four years ago and came back to serve in a mentoring capacity.
“I came back as a counselor,” said Mills, “because when I went through Freedom Academy, I made lifetime relationships and it was a life-saving opportunity that I was able to go through as a kid. I wanted to be able to provide those opportunities for the kids.”
Freedom Academy is not only for the delegates themselves. These students are leaders within their schools and Freedom Academy is designed to open their eyes to world issues and challenges that they can learn from, and then take back to their respective schools.
“It helps them learn more and become great leaders for their schools. Hopefully they can make an impact on the kids in their schools, like I was impacted by my counselor,” said Mills. “I think it is a great opportunity to go and share all the things that they have learned here with their schools.”
Delegates are challenged and placed in situations that are outside what they know and what they have experienced up to this point in their life.
“I really learned that it’s ok to be out of my comfort zone,” said Truman. “Sometimes in life, we like to get in this cocoon and we don’t want to do anything.”
For Lewis, his long tenure as director of Freedom Academy ends this year but he will be passing the baton to another generation of leaders.
“It’s something that will always be with me. It is something I will always carry in my heart,” said Lewis.
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