HARLAN – When cadets from the National Guard’s Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy (ACA) took to the basketball court at Middlesboro High last week their poise and demeanor were easy to spot.

ACA with JeffOver the next three hours, the seven Honor Platoon members provided encouragement and mentorship to the 182 participants in Operation UNITE’s Shoot Hoops Not Drugs basketball camp with former University of Kentucky all-star Jeff Sheppard.

“We thought it would be a good idea to show our cadets an opportunity to work with younger kids so they can be a positive influence. It’s a good opportunity for them to open up and to interact,” Dan Robinett, logistics and operations supervisor for the ACA. “They were excited to take part in it.”

An even larger number of cadets are expected at the free Shoot Hoops camp in Leslie County on June 17.

The ACA recently joined with UNITE in support of its youth initiatives. It has proven to be a perfect partnership.

“Operation UNITE believes the ACA program services the needs of many young people in our region,” said Dan Smoot, president/CEO. “We are happy to partner with the National Guard in spreading the word about the many benefits of this alternative educational program.”

And, according to the cadets, opportunities like Shoot Hoops Not Drugs provides a break from their daily routines.

As a senior at the University of Kentucky, Sheppard was named the NCAA’s Final Four Most Valuable Player in the Wildcats’ 1997-98 National Championship season. He would later go on to play one season with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and 3 years in Italy.

The 22-week ACA program is offered free for youth between the ages of 16 and 18 who may be working to overcome problems in their lives. In addition to providing an education alternative, the course is designed to instill the same skills, values and self-discipline necessary to succeed in today’s society.

Daily activities are structured around a military concept that includes a focus on discipline, integrity, teamwork, physical fitness and perform at least 40 hours of community service, Robinett said.

In addition to Shoot Hoops, the ACA is involved with the Harlan County Hooked On Fishing-Not On Drugs monthly events. Cadets have also assisted with PRIDE, local festivals, the Harlan County Little League, Harlan County School System, Southeast Community and Technical College, and the Harlan County Animal Shelter.

The Challenge Program began in 15 states in July 1993, and has operated in Kentucky since July 1999. The ACA began changing the lives of young people in July 2012. The current class has 59 members.

For more information or to obtain an application for the next class, which begins July 14, contact the Academy Admissions Office by calling toll-free 1-855-596-4927 or visit their website at https://www.ngycp.org/site/state/ky2/.