Originally from Ohio, 1st Sgt. Gary Lee, is the commandant of the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy, located at Grays Knob.
Retiring from the U.S. Army National Guard, 45 Bravo, Lee settled in Fort Knox and began working for the Challenge Academy there. When the Harlan academy opened he and his family relocated to Harlan.
“When they first began talking about opening an academy in Harlan, Col. John Smith made a comment to me that there were over 700 homeless children in Harlan County —my heart just busted,” said Lee, 43, of Elcomb, “I knew this didn’t mean children were on the street, but it meant over 700 children were not living with their parents. It was then I felt compelled, spiritually, to come to Harlan. It’s my heart’s desire to be a help — especially to children.”
Feeling led by God to help our youth, Lee said when he receives letters from cadets saying he has been a mentor to them and they call him dad, he feels “that’s what makes this program so worthwhile.”
“I’ve had situations in my life, in the past, that made things hard for me, so when I can help a kid get on the right path — that’s when I feel complete,” said Lee.
Beginning his job in December 2011, Lee is responsible for seeing that all of the cadets at the academy are safe. It’s his responsibility to see that they are learning their eight core components and getting ready for graduation. All the other sergeants are also under his leadership. He is responsible for seeing that all building codes and standards are met. He said he is “sort of like a principal.”
The first class of cadets from the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy will graduate at 3 p.m. Sunday at the James A. Cawood Elementary School gymnasium.
“With the holiday season upon us, it’s obvious to me, since I am a christian, what Christmas is all about,” said Lee. “I feel now more than ever it’s important for our community to show compassion — to be a savior, so to speak, for our youth. Instead of pushing them off to the side, because they might have had problems or issues in life, is not what they need. This is our next generation of kids growing up. We live in a world today that it’s hard right off the bat for kids when they are born. Looking back to when I was a youth to today, it’s not like it was then.
“I feel our communities need to get back to our roots and try to prepare our youth in ways so that they can become great leaders and that’s what we’re trying to do here at the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy. It’s easy for a lot of people to say they care, but to show you care means so much more. You have to have a loving and forgiving heart to work with this kids. The best present this community could give this Christmas is to open their hearts to what this program is truly about and realize we are here to save our kids.”
Lee and his wife, Kathy, have three grown sons and one daughter. He and his wife have one grandson and are expecting two more grandchildren in the summer.
Reach Nola Sizemore at 606-573-4510 or at firstname.lastname@example.org