Joey Smith did not always feel comfortable growing up, and a chaotic time in high school brought him to the Challenge Academy—a six-month reform school run by the Wisconsin National Guard. The program was a last-chance option for Smith to get his life back on course, but it worked.
“I think before I came here, I was kind of slouchy and kind of lazy,” he said. “I guess you could say it helped me realize my inner potential.”
After living in North Dakota and Wyoming, he came back to Wisconsin and reconnected with that pivotal program. He shared advice with a co-worker who had a son struggling in school.
“I was a lot like your son, but I went to the challenge program and it made me a better person,” Smith told his co-worker.
“About a month later, he’s asking me if I want to be a mentor. And I said, ‘Well, yeah. Sure, maybe it’s about time I give back,’” Smith said.
Thirteen years after he graduated the Challenge Academy, Smith began his mentorship training to help guide the next generation. “A lot of things just clicked,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow I remember marching down that street.’ Or ‘Wow, I remember doing push-ups over there.’”
He said he sees a lot of himself in his current mentee Jake, and that they have been able to bond over the shared experience. Looking back at his own experience, Smith said he is excited for what students like Jake can achieve.
“Having all my instructors come up to me and shake my hand and tell me, ‘Wow. You’ve grown up. You’re doing great.’ That’s a feeling of self-accomplishment,” he said.