Diginatires from around the state showed up for Saturday's groundbreaking on a $32 million upgrade for Lincoln's Challenge Academy in Rantoul.
RANTOUL — Peter Thomas has worked at Lincoln's Challenge Academy since it opened 21 years ago, the program for at-risk youths operating out of aging buildings on the old Chanute Air Force Base grounds.
"I have waited 20 years for this date and it is finally here," a joyous Thomas said Saturday at the groundbreaking for a $32 million upgrade of the Illinois National Guard-operated program. "We will be here in 2016. On that day, when we are opening the doors and cutting the ribbon, cadets, I'm inviting you all back so we can say, 'still here.'"
Most of the 270 cadets currently in the 22-week, quasi-military program on the old air force base grounds attended the groundbreaking Saturday that included Gov. Pat Quinn; Brig. Gen. Daniel Krumrei, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard; Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and his wife, Pam, a member of the Lincoln's Challenge board; and a host of state and local officials.
"When they graduate, these cadets return to our communities ready and able to help themselves, their neighbors, their state and their nation," Krumrei said. "This campus transition at the hands of hardworking laborers, engineers and architects parallels our work here at Lincoln's Challenge."
Quinn called Saturday "a really special day" and said that he "felt a great commitment to the Lincoln's Challenge Academy. I think Abraham Lincoln would feel that way."
Pam Cullerton said she had been involved with Lincoln's Challenge since 2008, "when I opened my big mouth and said something about, 'Why are all these kids dropping out of high school?' and someone said, "You need to take a look at Lincoln's Challenge. They do great things with great kids.'"
She joked that once she got on the board, she learned that the facilities in Rantoul needed an upgrade, "and I think I might have mentioned something to my husband."
The about-147,000-square-foot project includes construction of five new buildings to replace existing World War II-era structures. The construction will include a two-story educational facility to house classrooms, computer labs, a conference room, a library and more. The additional facilities include a multiple-use auditorium and athletic facility, a dining facility, a maintenance garage and a dormitory.
Lincoln's Challenge has graduated 14,047 young people since it began in 1993. It is the largest single-site program of its kind in the country. It has 140 employees.