MONTGOMERY — While the surrounding community may have a period of adjustment to their new neighbors, the cadets in the inaugural class of the West Virginia National Guard's Mountaineer Challenge Academy South will be the ones more embracing a new reality.

The 72-member class was welcomed last weekend to inhabit portions of a former college campus in this city which straddles the Fayette and Kanawha county line. And cadets and their leaders could be seen in portions of Montgomery this week, performing exercises as they settle into what will be their new home for the next 22 weeks.

"Everybody's kind of adjusting to the new way of life here," Deputy Director Debi Gipson said Tuesday while taking a brief break to talk to a reporter in the Maclin Hall courtyard on W.Va. 61. "Everything went smoothly (on Sunday's first intake day for cadets)."

Another intake of incoming cadets occurred on Oct. 13, and Gipson said she expected the full complement of 72 to be on hand by Wednesday.

The cadets represent 30 West Virginia counties.

The first two weeks will set the tone for the remainder of the program, Gipson said.

"This first couple weeks is what we call the acclimation period, and this is definitely the hardest time for them, just for the simple fact of being homesick," she said. "Some of these kids haven't been away from home.

"And they're coming in here and they're getting up at 0500; that right there can be hard. And they're not sitting around playing video games; that can be hard. Missing Mom and Dad can be hard. Not having any caffeine, or if they are nicotine users. ... Getting acclimated to those things is definitely hard."

Another adjustment will occur when physical training exercises begin in earnest. "We will be starting PT exercise by the end of the week. That's a definite new thing (for them)."

The big goal is "just getting acclimated to this way of life, and the structure of it. They've got a lot they're having to deal with."

Restrictions in place because of Covid-19 will limit MCA South's interaction with the public for a while, Gipson said. Activities will all be self-contained on campus.

"It's going to look different when we're not having to deal with Covid," she said. "Any of our service to community projects or anything like that, we're going to self-maintain around here on the old Tech campus for this time period.

"Once we can get past this Covid way of life, then we'll be more out in the community doing those types of things."

Even though much work has been completed in recent months to transform the Tech Center and Maclin Hall, cadet service projects for now will include continued updates to the campus, beautification projects, painting, and work on the old football field and old tennis courts. "Those are the type of things we're going to be working on. The cadets will be working; that way we can keep them contained here."

Weekends will be similar to weekdays, although actual education classes will be replaced by leadership classes revolving around the program's eight core components. There will also be physical training, sports and other activities. "They stay busy a lot; there's not a lot of down time for them."

The current class will graduate next March, and the subsequent class will enter in April.

Between now and then — and more increasingly when Covid-19 subsides — the public "will see activity," said Gipson. "People will be able to see cadets out working.

"We still have walkers come up and utilize our facilities, which is fine," she added. "We just ask that you make sure you keep 6-foot distance of cadets.

"We're excited about it," Gipson said. The Oct. 11 start date "looked hard to reach a couple weeks ago, a couple months ago. A couple days ago, it (even) looked hard."

But things have largely fallen into place. "It's still a work in progress, but we're up. We've got kids here."

Making that transition smoother has been solid aid from the community, she stressed.

"We have had such great support from the community," said Gipson. "Between (Montgomery) Mayor (Greg) Ingram and (Smithers) Mayor (Anne) Cavalier, they have completely opened their arms to us.

"We're super excited about working with them. Anything we've asked for, they have gone above and beyond to help us. We're very thankful for the support of the community."

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