This is the fourth of an occasional series by The News-Gazette's Tim Mitchell about the young men and women who attend Lincoln's Challenge Academy in Rantoul. The program for high school dropouts is operated by the Illinois National Guard. Students live in a military environment for 22 weeks on the former Chanute Air Force Base while completing an education program geared to finishing high school. More than 10,000 have graduated since 1993.
Rantoul and Philo are only 21 miles apart, but to Lincoln's Challenge Cadet Robby Blaney, it seems the two are worlds apart.
Dressed in a bright-blue academy uniform, the cheerful, red-haired teen says the discipline he has learned on the former Chanute Air Force Base has completely changed his life around.
Now 16, Robby calls his life growing up in rural Philo "typical." A devoted Boy Scout, when he wasn't working on merit badges or planning camp-outs with Philo Troop 60, Robby loved hanging around his big sister, Laura.
"Laura was more than a sister to me; she was also a good friend, and she always seemed to steer me in the right direction in my life," he recalls. "We were really close."
All that changed three years ago, when Laura became pregnant and moved away to Champaign and later to Rockford. Robby was in eighth grade.
"My parents, Bob and Jan Blaney, are foster parents, so I always had older brothers and sisters around," says Robby, who is also a foster son. "I didn't realize how much I missed Laura until she was no longer there to talk to. Suddenly I had become the only child in the house."
Robby looked for some new friends to hang around with at Unity High, and he admits he might not have made the best choices.
"Some of my new friends were experimenting with drugs, and there was always a temptation to join them," he says. "I guess I had some bad choices for friends."
Robby played free safety for the Rockets football team during his freshman year and then switched to soccer the next fall. He said he was good at joining organizations but not very successful at finishing anything.
During Robby's sophomore year at Unity, he found himself falling further behind in classes, and he was being asked to repeat some freshman-level courses, with math being the toughest subject for him.
"I was still failing the freshman math class, I got in trouble for writing on the walls at the high school and got kicked out," he says. "I'm not proud of myself for what happened, but I did it. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't be able to go back to school until my senior year."
Robby found a new start on life by enrolling at Lincoln's Challenge this fall.
"My cousin (Jordan Campbell) had attended the academy, so I knew all about it," Robby says. "This was a chance for me to start all over again and hopefully make some better choices."
Robby says it was challenging for him to adjust to the discipline of the academy's military lifestyle.
"You have to be a lot more organized here than I was at home," Robby says. "I never made my bed at home in Philo, and here at the academy everyone has to make their beds military-style and keep everything nice and neat."
Robby's team captain at the academy, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Jones, a veteran of both Iraq wars, says the Philo teen had been shy during his first weeks in Rantoul.
"I could tell the young man has outstanding leadership skills, he just needed to learn to utilize his communication skills rather than sitting back in the background," Jones says.
Robby said his favorite times at Lincoln's Challenge are Sundays, which are more relaxed.
"We go out and play recreational sports," he says. "We watch movies and play board games. We have a big breakfast with real eggs. It's a relaxing day."
Robby's biggest hurdle this fall has been trying to pass the math portion of his high school equivalency exams, especially algebra.
While the academy provided him extra time to spend on homework, Robby feared he might fail the test.
Robby says his roommate, Cadet David Villanueva, was great about encouraging him and helping him to learn math concepts.
"He helped me," Robby says. "We talked so many times when I felt like quitting. On more than one occasion I was crying because I didn't think I could make it. But I didn't quit."
When he learned he had passed the math exam, he said, it felt like a huge boulder had been lifted from his shoulders.
"I don't think I would have passed my math test were it not for Cadet Villanueva," Robby says. "Seeing that passing score was a great relief for me."
Through November, Robby has passed his reading and writing tests as well. And he's on his way to fulfilling another goal by becoming an Eagle Scout with his old troop. He organized repairs and improvements to the Lions Club Park in Sidney.
"We fixed it up," he says. "We painted some stuff, we power-washed the pavilion and painted it, we rebuilt the benches and we power-washed and painted the swing sets."
Jones wrote a letter to the Boy Scouts recommending him for Eagle Scout distinction.
"When he first arrived, I had no idea the kind of leadership skills this kid really had," Jones says. "He has helped to organize toy drives for disadvantaged kids in Afghanistan and Iraq. There's more to him than meets the eye."
Robby is determined to earn his academy diploma in December, but he worries about adjusting to the world outside of Rantoul.
"I think it is going to be hard leaving here and going back to the real world," he says.
Robby's old soccer coach, Buzz Johnson of Champaign, has agreed to serve as his mentor after graduation. Adult mentors work with Lincoln's Challenge cadets to provide guidance and monitor their progress for the post-residential phase of the program.
The next two things on Robby's to-do list after graduation are going to college and joining the military.
"After I graduate, I want to enroll at Parkland College," he says. "But as soon as I turn 17 years old, I want to join the Army. I knew I wanted to go into the military before I came here, but the cadre (staff) here has been so amazing and inspirational.
"The people of the National Guard have done so much to help turn my life around. I want to join the Army and do my part for my country. I'll do them proud."