Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bridgebuilders: An afterschool program at Trimble

Every day after school, Melissa Bailes offers students in Trimble Township the opportunity to engage with one another and themselves. They don’t need to pick up a football or play an instrument or anything. They just need to show up.

Bailes and the Bridgebuilders program hope to combat teen alcohol and drug abuse with mental and physical stimulation for the student population. The goal, as assessed by the Child and Family Services in Athens County, is to involve 100 percent of the students from fifth to eighth grade in some kind of after-school and summer activity.

Bailes has approached the problem by putting much of the program, which began in August, in the hands of its participants.

More than 30 students came into school on a Saturday afternoon, believe it or not, for a chance to set fire to the strings in a Guitar Hero competition that the program sponsored.

Bailes described the environment as “awesome”.

A group of students watched a stage performance of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Christmas play at ArtsWEST. Another visited the Athens Historical Society on a field trip. Students even took a few steps in a dance class. Still others joined a discussion group centered on nutrition and self-esteem.

The target students are not involved in other after-school activities and those who come from home environments where abuse is an everyday reality and the parents are often addicted to drugs, especially prescriptive ones. Children Services has reported that 85 percent of domestic abuse cases in Athens County involve substance abuse in some form.

According to a survey by Bridgebuilders, more than 7 percent of the students said they had used someone else’s prescription pain medication as a recreational drug. Even then, it ranks only fourth in the students’ drugs of choice.

“There are kids who don’t see much hope,” she said. “Now they’re excited. They come to me all the time and ask: ‘What are we doing next?’ These are kids who have never been to a play.”

The program is continuing to expand. Bailes is about to start a club called “Men of Strength”, focused on helping young male teens mature into men and not perpetuating domestic abuse in an area where it is common.

Finding community support is crucial for Bridgebuilders to maintain its success. Bailes plans on opening up a game night to involve families of students and other community members. Other possible plans include collaborations with the art studio at the Dairy Barn and Stuart’s Opera House.

Teen Power! Fighting violence with knowledge

When Kate McGuckin describes dating violence among teens, passion pierces through in her voice. Her fight is not only with individual instances of violence, but with an entire culture of aggression.

“We live in a very violent society,” said the director of My Sister’s Place, a domestic abuse shelter in Athens, “and the media glamorizes violence. We have a huge barrier trying to compete with the media.”

So, with aid from the Athens Foundation, My Sister’s Place recently partnered with Girl Power! to produce its first sessions of “Teen Power”, a program on dating violence for young teens. More than 40 area girls from ages 8 to 14 attended. The curriculum educated the girls on the characteristics of a healthy relationship, how to recognize abuse in a relationship, and what resources are available if they fear they are victims of abuse.

Teen dating violence is a tangible danger in Athens and across the nation. Studies of eighth and ninth grade students found that a quarter of them had suffered nonsexual violence in a dating situation and eight percent had been abused sexually.

The problem, as far as McGuckin can tell, forms from a combination of early exposure to sex and the prevalence of violence in television, movies and music.

“People are dating younger,” she said. “They are exposed to strong media messages about the importance of being popular, having a boyfriend, and seeking external validation through a relationship.”

In summary: “There’s a lot of peer pressure to be popular.”

So the Teen Power program responded by offering an opportunity for these young women to understand their own power against violent behavior and to prepare them for successful and healthy relationships as they enter the dating world. The girls designed t-shirts, posters and postcards reflecting those themes. The art was distributed to various local venues – libraries, schools, health centers – to raise awareness. Some girls wrote poetry; others cooperated to produce a play.

The key was peer-to-peer interaction and connection, which would ensure the lessons learned in Teen Power could translate into real-world scenarios.

“It was their program,” McGuckin said.

The authorities appear to be taking notice of the problem as well. Ohio passed legislation this last year mandating an education of dating violence in the school system.

McGuckin envisioned Teen Power as a program that could be replicated in the school environment. There is also room for expansion, and McGuckin hopes the opportunity for another session comes up.

“We would certainly like to continue this,” she said.