Forgoing the comforts of home, about 100 young people from the New York National Guard Corps of Cadets are invading Old Fort Niagara this week for a taste of military life.
With the beaches of Lake Ontario as their backdrop, the cadets will participate in military exercises with the assistance of the State National Guard.
The corps of cadets, which is in its 10th year, is a program designed to introduce students to military discipline while conveying an anti-drug message. There are 20 regiments throughout the state, and a new unit will come to Niagara Falls this fall.
The program is not designed as a means of recruitment, but 10 percent of its members join the military. About 70 percent of cadets go on to college or enter the work force.
"It gives kids a focus and helps them develop their self-esteem," said Lt. Col. David Slocum, director of the State National Guard's counterdrug program. "It gives kids something to belong to."
Providing outlets to keep youngsters off the streets is especially important in today's society, Slocum added.
Each year the group hosts an encampment for its members statewide, this year at Old Fort Niagara for the first time. After mornings filled with intensive drills and competitions, the cadets will camp out in the fabled haunted castle at Old Fort Niagara.
Cadets need to work as a team during the exercises, a quality not usually stressed in a competition-driven society, said Lt. Roger Lance.
"The kids are more focused," Lance said. "They tend to come in with less bickering, more team-oriented. They leave here very good friends. It's quite the opposite of everyday society."
Actor John Amos, who appears in CBS' "The District," joined the cadets Tuesday night to share his story of success. Scores of star-struck cadets watched Amos as the actor toured the fort's facilities.
Amos founded Halley's Comet, a youth program named for a one-man show in which he stars that introduces youngsters to opportunities in sailing.
His efforts to help guide underprivileged young people stem from his own humble beginnings.
"I was a street sweeper. I was a garbage man. But all the time, I had my mind set on another goal," he said. "They shouldn't see me as a movie star, but as a kid who grew up in the inner city and could have gone another way. But through the encouragement that I received, I realized my potential."
The National Guard program not only introduces youngsters to military discipline, but also helps them develop leadership skills that will prove valuable to their future, said Cadet First Sgt. Tyree Wilson.
Tyree, who has participated in the program for four years, oversees a group of younger cadets and helps them understand the values of military discipline.
"Being in this program, you become more disciplined," said Tyree, 16, of Rochester. "It teaches you how to be a team leader."
Cadet Amanda Cruz added that the discipline enforced in the program helps bring youngsters into a group where they can belong.
"Our corps is very much like a family," said Amanda, 18, of Buffalo. Her father, Richard, works with the Buffalo group as a civilian supervisor.
He said many participants look to the program as a way off the streets.
"They're given an option," he said. "This is the good side, and this is the bad side."