YouthDevConAbout 90 wing and region directors of cadet programs from across Civil Air Patrol convened Jan. 12-14 in Phoenix  to focus on the challenges cadets face, how to help them succeed, what their strengths are, and where their passions lie.

In addition to learning more about what makes Gen Z cadets tick, participants in the CAP cadet program’s 2024 Youth Development Conference heard presentations on  the importance of mental health and how the youth leaders can support cadets in crisis.

Curt LaFond, Civil Air Patrol director of cadet programs, welcomed the participants the evening before the conference began. 

When he asked how many in the room were former cadets, about half raised their hands.

“The No. 1 factor affecting a cadet’s success is you, the adult leaders who inspire and coach them,” LaFond told them. 

He noted that today’s cadets are shaped by the internet and the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing out that every CAP cadet today was born after the defining moment of 9/11.

“What’s novel to us is the norm to them,” LaFond said.

Reviewing some of the data about cadet programs, he reported that enrollment is at a 40-year high, as is encampment participation.  More squadrons than ever are earning CAP’s Quality Cadet Unit Award. Over the last five years, 285 cadets have earned their private pilot certificates through Cadet Wings and other programs.

“There’s never been a better time to be a cadet,” LaFond said.

In addition to those positive internal trends, he cited the results of an evaluation instrument called the Youth Experiences Survey that benchmarks CAP against other youth-serving programs.

“Cadets are developing leadership skills to far greater effect than kids in other youth programs,” LaFond said. “Cadets think seriously about their futures to far greater effect than noncadet peers. Cadets are grounding their lives in the core values.

“Three distinct audiences echo those claims – cadets, parents, and leaders like you – thereby warranting our confidence in the survey findings.

“We are on the right track for success and don’t need a course correction” he said. “We do need to summon the courage to question old dogmas that have outlived their usefulness.”

CAP Chief Operating Officer John Desmarais told the participants, “You have a great opportunity here to learn from people across the country. You will be able to interact with people who are like-minded and learn from them.”

Desmarais encouraged participants to gather ideas for different kinds of activities in other parts of CAP that could be useful in their own wings and regions.

Much of the weekend was spent doing just that. Participants worked in smaller groups throughout the conference, carrying out exercises and activities based on presentations by a wide variety of speakers. Each group had a professional facilitator, most of whom had participated in previous CAP Youth Development Conferences.

One keynote speaker was Corey Seemiller, a professor in the department of leadership studies in education and organizations at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.  Seemiller has been on the forefront of research and publishing about Generation Z, authoring four books on the topic, since its members began entering college.

Almost all of today’s cadets are identified as Gen Z, those born from 1995-2010.

“What happens to us between 14 and 24 sticks with us for the rest of our lives,” Seemiller said. For young people, this “shapes the way they see and navigate the world,” she added.

In examining what motivates Gen Z, she found that “they want to impact others,” Seemiller said. “It’s important not to let others down, to make a difference, to advocate for a cause.”

They use social media to connect with people and have an average of 8.7 social media accounts, she said. “They love to live behind screens and through social media profiles. They say they like face-to-face communication; however, they may lack the ability to carry on a conversation.”

LaFond later spoke about what’s involved in giving young people a hand in running their own programs, and he shared his research into issues that may arise with this practice. Participants then had an opportunity to discuss their wings specifically and think about areas where CAP is succeeding and where improvements can be made.

Directors of cadet programs from the Colorado, Hawaii, and Texas wings participated in a panel discussion about specific cadet-focused programming in their wings and how these efforts are reaching and empowering CAP youth.

The first day ended with a session in which Joanna Lee, national cadet curriculum program manager, asked for ideas on how to continue enhancing CAP’s encampment program. Lee previewed some of the planned updates and enhancements coming for 2024. Participants were asked to share their thoughts on the specific challenges their wings face and the support they would most like to receive from the Cadet Programs team.

The keynote speaker on the second day was Omar Guessous, national director for Research, Evaluation & Insights for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.  

This session was designed to help participants understand why young people today struggle with more mental health and anxiety issues than previous generations. Guessous’ remarks addressed what’s driving the mental health crisis, how trauma impacts youth, and how to employ trauma-informed practices to counterbalance the challenges youth face. 

Two subject matter experts from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia Meghan O’Meara, director of the Student Counseling Center, and Dr. Emily Lisco, director of the Emotional Health & Wellness Program  presented a session on the QPR process: Question. Persuade. Refer.

QPR is a simple and effective three-step process to help recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and to then question, persuade, and refer someone to help. O’Meara and Lisco discussed the warning signs of cadets in crisis and what to do when recognizing them.

With so many former cadets in the audience, it was important to compare the adult leaders’ experiences with what today’s cadets are experiencing. Before the conference, several cadets were interviewed about their experiences. Those recordings were shown, and participants were asked to contrast their personal experiences as teens with those of today’s cadets.  

The conference concluded with conversations about how participants could take what they learned back to their regions and wings and share the information with others working in Cadet Programs at the wing and squadron levels. 

Working again in small groups, participants developed the framework for an action plan for their wings, focusing on what resonated most with them over the two days of presentations and small-group activities.
Maj. Margot Myers
Public Affairs Officer
Arizona Wing