MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga -- Today's youth confront the harsh realities of surging teen pregnancy, school violence and abuse. In their learning institutions, they face many types of peer pressure and the temptation to try easily accessible drugs. Inside their homes, they are bombarded by a television that spews a steady stream of drug and crime-glamorizing celebrities.
For many teachers and parents, the struggle to shelter their children from these negative influences is a daily battle; a battle some are losing. However, a program supported by Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany is giving frustrated parents a place to turn for help, and providing local youth with a positive environment where they can grow.
The Young Marines program was established in 1958 by the Marine Corps League. It is a non-profit education program for boys and girls from age 8 through high school. Today, the program continues to focus on character building through a combination of self-discipline, teamwork and leadership, and promotes a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.
Recently, the Albany chapter, headed by Master Sgt. Nathaniel Lowman (USMC Ret.), participated in a landmark trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.
"This program gives students a sense of direction," Lowman said. "We want these kids to succeed. This trip is our way of rewarding those kids who chose to work hard in school and develop their character."
Albany Young Marines have traveled to Quantico, Va., and Washington D.C. in the past, but according to Master Gunnery Sgt. Randolph Scott (USMC Ret), this trip was the first of it's kind.
"We try to do something for the kids every year," Scott said. "We've done small trips in the past, and we thought about going to Parris Island this year. Unfortunately,the war prevented us from being able to take the kids there,so we decided to take them to Universal Studios instead. Other Young Marine chapters take big annual trips like this one,but this is the first time Albany Young Marines have had the opportunity."
Albany Young Marines are comprised of 105 students from five surrounding counties. More than half of them labored tirelessly to raise funds for the trip,sponsoring car washes and mailing flyers to parents. However, academic performance and behavior were the determining factor for each child's participation.
"All of our Young Marines are required to take home evaluation sheets that cover their performance at school as well as their overall conduct," said 1st Sgt. Anthony Meriweather, company first sergeant, Albany Young Marines. "We started with 53 students, and report cards whittled that number down to 29. This trip is a reward for their dedication. We wanted the students who put their heart into the program to reap the benefits."
As the children ran around the park, playing tag and eating ice cream, they forgot about the realities of their normal lives. Instead, some remembered the joy it was to be a child, while others experienced it for the first time. For two brief days, these children knew unadulterated happiness.
"I like the Young Marines because (our instructors) teach us how to drill and take us on trips," said Kevin O'Neal, 4th grader, Sylvester Road Elementary School.
"If I weren't in the Young Marines I wouldn't get to do stuff like this," added O'Neal, as he hopped into a go-cart. "Right now, I'd probably be home watching television."
Sgt. Daryl Rogers, drill instructor, Albany Young Marines, says many of the children in the program share O'Neal's sentiment.
"Our Young Marines program helps keep many of these students off the streets and out of trouble," Rogers said. "We give them a fun place to go where they have positive role models and discipline. If we don't teach them how to be leaders, all they'll ever know is how to follow."
With dedicated volunteers like Rogers, Albany's blossoming young men and women are being steered toward a path of opportunity. The Young Marine program continues to mold their lives, and the seeds of leadership planted today promise to bear abundant fruit in otherwise uncertain futures.
"Many of our kids come from broken or single parent homes, and they don't have the structure they need in their lives. Sometimes the parents just drop them off here and say "see what you can do with this one." Young Marines is the only chance some of these kids will ever have to do something like this," Meriweather said.
"When the kids are with us, we're their family. We're not going to let them down," Meriweather pointed out.