First Lady Cathy Justice presents Rhododendron Award to West Virginia National Guardsman who ensured cadets could triumph through pandemic


​CHARLESTON, WV – First Lady Cathy Justice presented her Rhododendron Award today to West Virginia National Guard SGM Frank Leone.

The First Lady’s Rhododendron Award recognizes individuals in West Virginia who have demonstrated goodness and worked for the betterment of their communities. In particular, this award seeks to recognize the “unsung heroes” throughout West Virginia, whose work has made a significant difference in the lives of others.

“Sergeant Major Leone, you have been such a caring person and an inspiration for so many young West Virginians,” First Lady Justice said during the virtual award ceremony. “You’re an example of what makes a soldier great.”
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SGM Leone managed a laptop distribution plan that delivered laptops to Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy (MCA) students that were sent home due to COVID-19. His efforts ensured MCA cadets could complete essential coursework virtually and continue to work toward their graduation requirements.

“It’s an honor to receive this award and to accept this award on behalf of the West Virginia National Guard,” SGM Leone said. “The National Guard is a great organization and I’m very lucky to be a part of this team. One of our core values is selfless service, and all National Guard members have a great passion toward our state and passion toward helping people.”
The Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy provides educational opportunities for at-risk youth, ages 16-18, in a quasi-military program focused on eight core components. In addition, the Mountaineer Job ChalleNGe Program is available on the campus for cadets or recent graduates who want to earn industry-recognized certifications in fields such as manufacturing, medical technician, pre-apprenticeship, energy sector, and more. 

“Helping the ChalleNGe Academy was really an easy task,” SGM Leone said. “The ChalleNGe Academy is a great program, a needed program in our state, that provides all kinds of opportunities for the youth of West Virginia.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued, SGM Leone ensured that MCA cadets were contacted and welfare checks were conducted regularly. He followed-up with student’s coursework progress and made sure that each household had basic necessities.

First Lady Justice was joined by West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. James Hoyer for the award presentation for SGM Leone.

“He has gone above and beyond, particularly during the pandemic,” Maj. Gen. Hoyer said. “We had a unique challenge with our Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy program. Early on in the pandemic, we had to send young men and women home until we could figure out how to effectively manage the program through a pandemic.”
SGM Leone personally delivered food and water to several students and even arranged for one student and her mother to be transported to the grocery store and to a food bank. He also developed a transportation plan that allowed MCA students from around the state to safely return to campus and complete their graduation testing.

“The Sergeant Major was one of those folks that stepped up and made sure that each and every one of those cadets was taken care of and that their families were watched out for and taken care of, and I greatly appreciate that,” Hoyer said.

Because of SGM Leone’s efforts, 33 MCA students were able to earn their high school diploma despite the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic.

“You are such a good example to so many young men and women in our state and these are our children and students that go on to do great things in their life because they meet people like you,” First lady Justice said. “You’re just an incredible person and we can't thank you enough for all that you’ve done.”

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Jordan Damron,


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Charleston, WV 25305

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