GAINESVILLE -- Beth Bridgewater wasn't sure what to expect last year when she left her son, Jesse, in the care of the Gainesville Jaycees' Gut Check program.
Now she can't imagine what her son's life would have been like without it.
"This is awesome, what the Jaycees are doing," Bridgewater said. "My son came back a better person, and it gave him so much confidence and faith not only in himself but in his ability to help others."
For his part, Jesse Bridgewater loved the Gut Check program so much that the rising West Hall High freshman came back for another round of the Jaycees leadership training -- which began on Thursday.
Bridgewater, who will act as a counselor in his second stint, was one of almost 60 Hall County youths the Jaycees ferried to the campus of North Georgia College and State University on Thursday for their four-day-long program -- now in its 15th year.
Designed to imbue "candidates" with strict discipline, confidence and a better understanding of teamwork, Gut Check takes rising eighth graders -- and rising freshmen counselors -- and pushes each to challenge himself and his fellow candidates.
"We're hoping to give these kids the skills to be successful in life," Gut Check director and Jaycees member Brian St. Pierre said. "We give these kids a chance to learn some important skills and do some special activities that they might never get a chance to do otherwise."
That includes rappelling down Mt. Yonah, perhaps the highlight of a weekend spent in and around the north georgia mountains that requires utmost concentration and attention to detail from a group that sometimes struggles with finding proper focus.
"My son needs to be more responsible," said Leeza Young, the mother of Josh Blanton, a West Hall Middle School student set to embark on his first Gut Check. "A lot of being his age is about influence, and I want him to be around good people who care about him. These guys obviously care about these kids."
In fact Gut Check weekend is just the first step for candidates, as a follow-up program has also been created so that the Jaycees may stay in touch with the youths in their charge and keep tabs on their progress, working hand-in-hand with several Hall County schools.
"These guys are caught in the middle of things right now; they're not quite men, but they're growing up fast, and it's important for them to learn the right way to do things now," St. Pierre said. "They're still at an age where it's easy to get through to them."
On Thursday, that may have been the furthest thing from the minds of most candidates, many of whom were simply ready to get going.
"I've heard it's kind of hard," candidate Colby Landman said. "But I'm excited."
So too were candidates Quayshun Holcomb and Juan Camacho, both set to embark on their first Gut Check.
"I want to learn how not to be afraid and how to pay better attention," said Holcomb, a Gainesville Middle student.
Camacho had some idea of what was coming and was equally champing at the bit.
"My brother (Eric) and his friends have gone and told me I should go," said Camacho, a West Hall Middle student. "I'm just ready."
Now that they have taken the plunge Beth Bridgewater believes they will very much appreciate the results come Sunday's graduation ceremony (scheduled for 11 a.m. at Gainesville Middle School).
"A lot of parents might be scared away from this because they think it might be too hardcore, but this teaches the kids that they can do things and to believe that they can, and that's what matters," Bridgewater said. "These guys have great integrity and commitment. Its breathtaking."