Tennessee Teen Institute Promotes Positivity and Prevention

By Karen Campbell

Ask any of the 500 participants in this week’s Tennessee Teen Institute what exactly TTI is, and the first reaction will be a pause. The phrase “hard to explain” will probably come up. And then the stories of life-changing conversations, presentations and experiences will tumble out.

While billed as a way “to unlock the potential of the youth of Tennessee to lead by example and to take a proactive role in bringing about positive changes,” TTI is more than just a clever means of delivery “do and don’t” messages. Sure, they are told about the dangers of alcohol, drugs and tobacco, and yes, they are given lots of information on how to make healthy choices and build positive relationships. But the Sunday evening through Friday morning experience, now in its fourth year at the University of Tennessee at Martin, is creating a culture of positivity that has one-time campers coming back as youth staff, peer leaders, liaisons, and finally members of the Extreme Team, the group that helps Kristi J. Townes, director of prevention/TTI director with the Jackson Area Council on Alcoholism (JACOA) continue a three-decades-long commitment to Tennessee youth.

While the prevention-focused summer camps have been around since 1986, this year marks the 10th for the statewide expression and the first year of restored state funding after seven years without. Townes and JACOA thought the results were so worthwhile they found a way to make the event happen even when state funds dried up. This year they welcomed teams of six teens and one adult from 44 counties.

In fact, Townes had a waiting list after capping participation at 60 teams so that the intimate nature of the small groups can be maintained. The focus is on small groups of individuals from across the state forming “families” in which they can discuss the daily topics that range from drug/alcohol/tobacco and sex, to crafts for kindness and leadership lessons. Peer leadership is a major component with more than 80 youth working as volunteers.

“You can’t explain TTI, you have to experience it,” said Townes, but she does acknowledge that the goal is for the various groups coming from Boys and Girls Clubs, Youth Prevention Coalitions and churches to take what they learn and think about it all year round, from personal decisions, to community action, to small acts of kindness.

During the week, participants coming from towns from across the state are asked to work as a Community Action Team and create an action plan with specific and measurable goals to address concerns within their communities.

With so many years of Institutes behind her, Townes is an encyclopedia of youth trends. She says that 10 years ago, the topics teens wanted and needed to discuss were alcohol and teen pregnancy, five years ago it was teen suicide and this year it’s “juuling” (using a new type of e-cigarette called “juul” which allows for nicotine intake with liquid-filled cartridges that come in popular flavors).

Courtney Echols is the Weakley County Prevention Coalition Program Director, and, after seven years with TTI, is now a member of the Extreme Team that helps plan and coordinate the week. While she too agrees the event needs to be experienced to be fully understood, she readily points to the varied backgrounds of the participants as one of TTI’s defining characteristics.

“Everyone is accepted for who they are and taught to love others for who they are. From the very first year, that was what got me,” she explained after a Tuesday morning session where the Williams Duo had engaged the crowd with pop music and personal stories. Followed by the chants that have become such a second language that the random topics of the energizers (Bazooka, Red Wagon, and the mechanizations of milking a cow name Bessie) grace the T-shirts that students and staff are wearing, the day then moved to breakout sessions where experts in their fields dug deeper into topics selected to introduce or enhance leadership qualities.

Townes says she discourages adult team organizers from recruiting the usual go-to students to attend. The star football player, the head cheerleader, the president of the Beta Club — they are often tapped for roles, so Townes instead asks for the Beta Club member, the leaders who may not have realized their potential yet but who can thrive in an environment that is heavy on experiential learning and dependent on everyone using their voice to add to the conversation.

When a group of peer leaders and longtime teachers were asked to say what TTI meant to them they mentioned changed lives, transformation, family and, strangely, a vacation.

Kendra Crisp, a teacher from Livingston, laughingly says that the only thing that gets her west of Nashville is TTI and a couple of friends (both of whom she met through TTI). She says that the week provides the foundation for learning about prevention and the core of her school improvement plan.

The TTI website says the overall goal of the Tennessee Teen Institute is “to promote the development of a healthy, safe and drug-free lifestyle by impacting the attitudes and behaviors of youth in the areas of alcohol, tobacco, drug abuse, and violence.” One way that’s done is through energetic repeat and response.

As soon as the chants conclude and the group is reminded that “Ain’t no party like a drug-free party, ‘cause a drug-free party don’t stop … say what,” Echols convenes a few of the Weakley County participants to share what they derive from the morning-to-night presentations and interactions.

The Weakley County Prevention Coalition funds the team of six. This year it includes Jenna Freeman of Sharon, Aniya Stokes of Martin, and Emily Ray of Martin. Each of the girls has attended TTI before and each underscore new information and new relationships are enticements to return.

Freeman and Ray both point to the value of the new resources and new information that they can use to shape their plans for what to take back to their high schools. An example is the Red Sand Project where real sand is used in the lines of concrete sidewalks to remind the passerbys how people who are trapped in human trafficking easily fall in the cracks. Since each of the participants was given sand to take home and reproduce the experience, the girls are already planning on what it will look like in their schools.

Stokes returns to the new people she has met in each of the four years she’s attended and how engaging with a “family” assigned on the first day and the group with whom most of the presentations are then processed allows for new perspectives.

Fernando Serrano Alavarado of Palmersville is a peer leader with four years of experience at TTI. He points to the culture and community that is built in one week but extends for far longer as a reason for his continuing to volunteer to give his time and talents as a peer leader.

“I love the energy and the atmosphere,” he notes of the vibe that is generated by the dedicated staff. “They are not here to break you down. They’re here to build you up.”

Echols agrees. “Everyone is accepted,” she observes. “It is not a clique-oriented environment. Kids get a sense that ‘I can be me.’ They know the space is open, they can speak freely and are able to ask questions.”

This year the keynote experiences came from nationally-known speakers such as Eddie Slowikowski, a former NCAA All-American runner, who spoke on being “authentically who you are, the beauty magic and wonder that is within you. Learning to connect with it, how you bring it out, how you share it because it’s your unique gift to contribute to this world.”

In a short video posted to social media, he noted, “It’s not just about saying no to drugs, alcohol, tobacco and these things that can harm us. It’s about saying yes to your life. The greatest preventative tool there is is belief in one self, the goal, the vision, the dream you have for who you are, the authentic beauty that is within you and being that person each day and living your journey the best you can. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey, the process and being authentically you.”

Other speakers include Brent Swolsky who has been an educator for 22 years, as both a special education teacher and a high school counselor, and uses storytelling, conversations, and activity to encourage youth to share their own story. Also on the agenda is Kate Garnes, described as a speaker, choreographer, kickboxing trainer, youtuber, and “all-around normal girl trying to leave this world a tiny bit brighter than when I came into it.” Jessie Funk takes a research-based approach to teaching the importance of making good choices leaning on both her experience as a prolific author and a professional singer to package her presentations.

Concluding days of information-sharing and plan-making, participants are encouraged to relax and enjoy fun times via the UTM Rec Rampage, Talent Show, Think Fast game show, and the final night’s Sock Hop.

Townes recognizes the gift of local support for the continued success of TTI and expressed thanks to UTM, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Tennessee Highway Safety Office, State Farm, Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Prevention Coalition, Tennessee Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, Trudy’s Café in Union City, McDonald’s in Martin, SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Tennessee, MADD Tennessee, Wal-Mart, Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, and the Jackson Area Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency.

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