By Allison McNeal


Fifteen girls, ages 11-18, learned life-lessons as they pushed themselves to complete the 5th Annual Character Building Academy workshop.

The program, provided by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, Juvenile Court Services, Dallas Center Police Department and the Waukee Police Department, was open to all young men and women who learned military-style physical and mental challenges to develop their leadership skills and character.

The men completed their program on June 14, while the women completed their final challenge last Wednesday, June 26.

The challenge consisted of running six miles through waist-high weeds, walking through a knee-high creek and belly crawling through a mud bog.

"It’s the final challenge, but it’s not about time," Instructor and Dallas Center Police Chief Michelle Leonard said. "It’s about the effort they put into it."

Each girl, no matter what their background, comes into the two-week academy with a clean slate.

"The goal of this program is for the girls to work together as leaders in order to be successful," Leonard said. "Some girls are court ordered, while others are there because they want to. Everyone comes here on an equal playing field."

Sixteen-year-old Anna Gilbert is just one individual who has stepped up at the academy.

"We see girls who don’t think they can step up and show leadership and some don’t make it because of that or they don’t follow the rules," Leonard said. "But there are some girls who push through that and show leadership, like Anna, and do really well."

Through the course of the two weeks, not only Leonard sees changes, but parents, like Lori Trammell, do as well.

"It’s amazing seeing how much the girls change," she said. "Seeing them on graduation day really is such a big difference."

On graduation day, the girls listen to women speakers who speak on success.

"I try to bring in women, not men, who can speak to them about their own success," Leonard said. "The stories the women tell about their downfalls and how they overcame those obstacles are really moving. It’s important for the girls to know that they can choose their own path."

Leonard said she and her team also keep in touch with former participants through social media sites like Facebook.

"We’ve designed a Facebook page that is invite only for those who have gone to the academy," she said. "We still have students we keep in touch with and talk to. If they have an issue, we reach out to them and help as best as we can…We let them know that we care."

Although Leonard and her instructors care, she emphasized the importance that the girls learn to care and believe in themselves.

"Girls are very hesitant to begin this program because they believe they can’t do it, but you see them grow throughout the two weeks," Leonard said. "The very first challenge we make them run a mile and many of them can’t run a full mile or don’t think they can. Then at the end of the program, they realize that they can and did accomplish those things…They are so proud of what they accomplished and that’s great to see."