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13-year-olds learn about life choices at Gut Check
Riverside Military Academy President William J. Gallagher presents a presidential coin to Germin Lao, who was selected as Mr. Gut Check during during graduation for the three-day program Sunday. - photo by Norm Cannada

A group of 54 13-year-olds spent the weekend learning to navigate activities such as wall climbing, rappelling and obstacle courses in an environment of military discipline designed to help build a foundation for the teens as they face difficult life choices in the coming years.

Gut Check 2017 was held Thursday through Sunday at Riverside Military Academy. The program, sponsored by the Gainesville Jaycees for the past 20 years, had been at the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus until this year, according to Cory Cummings, a member of the Jaycees and executive officer for Gut Check for the last two years. Cummings said the move was made to Riverside this year because Jaycees saw it as “a better fit” for the program.

“The purpose of Gut Check is to build a foundation,” Cummings said. “We feel that when they hit 14 or 15, they get a little more set in their ways. Before they hit that age of high school when they’re really going to be tested and they’re really going to be influenced by friends — bad influences in high school — we’d like to give them a solid foundation now to prepare them for the tough years ahead.”

The Jaycees raise funds during the year to sponsor the program and other community service projects, according to Cummings. He said the participants come from a variety of backgrounds.

“Some are excellent kids whose parents have heard about the program and want their child to come,” he said. “Some are referred from juvenile court — it’s part of probation — and everyone (else) in the middle.”

Cummings said the program is designed to challenge the teens with activities like a 43-foot rappelling tower, wall climbing and an obstacle course.

“Most of these kids had never rappelled in their life, and it was a terrifying experience,” Cummings told parents and others at the program’s graduation ceremony Sunday. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted to push them and show them they could overcome their fears. It was also an opportunity for them to trust us, and I feel that we have accomplished that mission.

“In the obstacle course, they had obstacles they could not overcome by themselves,” he added. “That gave the opportunity for them to grow as leaders, to work as a team. They had to push themselves. They can’t get over that wall without the help of their squad.”

Leaders and participants in the program also made a trip to Lumpkin County Jail, something Cummings said they have been doing for the last few years. He said one of the inmates there talked to the teens about decisions he had made.

“It was an awesome experience,” Cummings said. “They saw what happens when you break the law. As a 13-year-old, they break the law at home, the worst you can do is ground them, take away their PlayStation, take away their Xbox. We show them that, in just a few short years, you break the rules and this is where you go. There are no warnings. You don’t come and go as you please.”

Among the Jaycees leading the group was a former participant. Paul Rogers, the leader of  Squad 4, said he participated in Gut Check as a teen in 2000.

“I remember leaving that program with a ton more confidence than when I went in and a lot more integrity and discipline,” said Rogers, who joined the Jaycees eight months ago and was participating as a leader for the first time.

In addition to certificates and dog tags the students received at graduation, three also earned special honors. Jonatna Cruz won the Most Improved Award; Quintavious Holcomb received the Cecil Boswell Resiliency Award; and Germin Lao was named Mr. Gut Check. On top of the awards, these three also received a personalized presidential coin from Riverside President William J. Gallagher. Gallagher challenged the students during the ceremony Sunday.

Lao, a student at West Hall Middle School, said he was surprised to win the award.

“It feels very great to be Mr. Gut Check,” he said.  

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