The army cadet corps has come a long way in Chatham in 115 years.
Back in January 1900, the first army cadet corps in Chatham was formed at the former Chatham Collegiate Institute, and the 59th Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps had its first meeting.
Since that time, the Corps moved to the Chatham Armoury in 1968 and became affiliated with the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment, and in 1975 admitted women for the first time. Branch 28 Royal Canadian Legion started sponsoring cadets the same year, and the name changed to the 59 Legion Highlanders Army Cadet Corps.
The Corps has opened its doors to many young men and women aged 12-19 free of charge, and according to Officer Cadet Lisa Okkema, who joined as an elementary school student in 1984 and has now returned as an adult, the experience is like no other.
“They used to come into the schools and recruit back then, and there were four of us, all girls, who wanted to join,” Okkema explained. “It was bit overwhelming at first but it was so nice to go to a place where everyone was treated equally – there were no cliques like at school, no idea of anyone’s background or rich or poor families.
“In those five years, what I learned there took me through my whole life. The leadership and confidence – those are skills you learn at a young age and never forget.”
Okkema decided to return to the Corps three years ago as an officer. She said it the best decision she has ever made and an opportunity to give back to an organization that gave her so much as a youth.
“The friends you make; they are still a part of my life and I always keep in touch with them,” Okkema said. “For any teen who may be looking at where they fit it, the Corps is a completely non-judgmental atmosphere with meetings every Wednesday from 6 p.m. -9 p.m. at no cost to parents.”
The Corps receives government funding and members do some fundraising as well for the big year-end trip every year.
Okkema said cadets learn new skills such as leadership, orienteering (using a map and compass) and marksmanship.
Every summer, there are also camps at no cost where cadets can take courses in marksmanship, leadership, parachuting, international exchange, sports and fitness, expedition (survival) and general training.
The cadets also help in the community with the Chatham Goodfellows food drive at Christmas, Legion Poppy Days and take part in the Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Kyle McPherson, 15, of Chatham, and a student at CKSS, is one youth who took advantage of what the Corps had to offer. He joined on his 12th birthday in 2012. While at a youth event with his family back in 2009 when he was just nine, McPherson saw the Cadet Corps info booth and immediately knew it was something he wanted to try.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was cool and wanted to join, but I was too young,” McPherson said. “I always have been interested in the military and police, and wanted to pursue it.”
Since joining, McPherson has excelled in his training. He currently holds the rank of sergeant and has achieved the level of Distinguished Marksman, one of his favourite aspects of his training, with the Daisy Air Rifle. He has also participated in the summer camps for marksmanship and FTX (field training exercises), which are optional but McPherson highly recommends. The next step up the ranks will be warrant officer.
With several awards, including one for marksmanship for placing fourth out of approximately 300 cadets, the teen is working toward qualifying for the National Rifle Team in the Corps. He spent part of his summer in camp at Connaught, near Ottawa, which is the National Rifle Base of the Canadian Armed Forces, and was given the honour of leading his platoon on the parade grounds during the graduation ceremony.
“Kyle is an excellent example of how well a young person can do when you join as a Cadet,” Okkema said of the teen, who she said works hard and should be proud of how far he has come in his skill levels.
In the cadet star system – green, red, silver and gold – McPherson just graduated the silver level and is now a gold star, which is more of a leadership role with the green and red level cadets, he said.
“It’s an experience that no elementary or high school can give you,” McPherson said. “It teaches what to do and what not to do – there is always a time and place. Self-discipline is what it teaches you.
“It’s also a step in the door for a career in policing, the military or reserves. It looks good to have that background of the military and some knowledge of it,” McPherson added.
If he were to give any advice to young men and women thinking about joining the Corps, McPherson summed it up like this: “Join – just do it. It’s free. I don’t know why you wouldn’t. You will never get that experience anywhere else.”
To find out more about the Cadet Corps and how to join, go to www.59armycadets.ca or call 519-351-6412.