Queen Creek-based Arizona Project Challenge’s graduating class of 79 was small even by the standards of the intensive five-month program for high school dropouts, but the 850-seat auditorium where the ceremony was held Saturday overflowed with a multicultural mob of families and friends.

The program has been renting the space at Gilbert’s Highland High School for years for the ceremony because its campus near Williams Gateway Airport doesn’t have a gym, an auditorium or a cafeteria.

Luisa Zamora, 18, of Scottsdale, who received three scholarships and spoke at the graduation, said it was inconvenient for students to have to walk over to the charter school next door for their three meals per day, but she never gave it much thought.

"I didn’t come here for a vacation; I came here to change my life," said Zamora, who learned about the program from her rehab counselor while kicking a methamphetamine habit. She will enroll at Scottsdale Community College to study business accounting.

Project Challenge, a nonprofit educational program with ties to the Arizona-Nevada National Guard, is raffling off a brand-new house as part of a $5.5 million fundraising drive to build a cafeteria, a gym and four more classrooms so it can expand enrollment by 50 percent. It gets some 450 applications to enroll in the free program each of its two annual sessions, marketing director Dave Juliano said.

Students spend five months living on the Queen Creek campus, with just one day for family visitation. They experience military discipline, learn job and life skills and have four chances to take the GED test. If they pass on the first try, they can go on to earn nine college-level credits. They are paired with volunteer mentors for another year after graduating.

Maj. Gen. David Rataczak, the Arizona National Guard’s adjutant general, announced during his closing remarks the names of seven students who had just passed the GED.

Graduates are not under any obligation to join the military. Kenneth Schmal of Chandler leaves with a $1,000 scholarship he intends to use at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, but he also plans to join the Army. Today’s GIs are increasingly in harm’s way, but Schmal said he isn’t worried: "Challenge has led the way, and I’ll do fine."

De-ve Fred of Tuba City watched his wife’s sister, Carleen Salt, graduate. He and his wife, Tammie, also graduated from Project Challenge.

Taking a break in the lobby with his 4-month-old son Ozzy, Fred said he’ll have to get reacquainted with Salt before knowing how Project Challenge has changed her, but he got past a stint in juvenile detention to become a family man and hopes to make squad captain after five years as a firefighter.

"We got kids to raise, we got bills to pay; it kind of gets you going," he said.

Fundraising effort

Arizona Project Challenge is raffling off a new $400,000 house in Litchfield Park, donated by Golden Heritage Homes, as part of a $5.5 million fundraising drive. Tickets are $100 and are available through www.winthishomeaz.com or by calling (602) 250-2401. The winners of this and nine other prizes will be selected in October.

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