The future of tomorrow depends on the youth of today. This fact is at the heart of Bradley Initiative for Church and Community’s twofold approach to building strong youth.
In 2005, the community listening process indicated that today’s youth have an increasing number of challenges they face that are in many ways different than former generations. The responses from the community prompted BICC to host a community youth forum with youth, parents, educators, church leaders, elected officials, law enforcement officers and concerned citizens. The youth were encouraged to share their experiences, challenges and hopes for the future. The forum was both sobering and inspiring, giving direction for another BICC community initiative to help address the issues youth face.
Together with Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) grant, BICC launched a twofold youth development plan. First, in 2006, the Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today youth leadership development program was launched. Secondly, in 2008, after ITLT was firmly grounded, BICC again with the help an SS/HS grant and community partners including YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs, launched the Bridging the Gap Mentoring program.
In order to ensure a thriving community, nation, and world it is critical that youth develop the necessary skills to lead others, stand up for their beliefs, and be involved in their communities. The mission of ITLT is to cultivate leadership capacity in students and mobilize them to reinvest in our community. ITLT is available to middle and high school students and home-schooled students in Cleveland and Bradley County. Making new friends and getting to know people from the other schools is one of the students’ favorite parts of the program.
“The two primary components of ITLT are learning and service,” explained Chrissy Jones, Youth Development director. “ITLT students meet every other week for leadership skills lessons, in addition to participating in monthly community service projects.”
The program currently uses the evidence-based materials from the 40 Developmental Assets developed by the Search Institute, and the Building Everyday Leadership curriculum to help students develop their leadership skills.
Jones added, “A significant component to the program for the students is the opportunity for learning from community leaders.”
Jones invites local leaders from different career fields as guest speakers to share their expertise and wisdom with the students. A few examples of these include Pete Vanderpool of the Creative Story Project recently shared his work with Alzheimer’s patients and led the students in interesting activities to make the information more relevant; and the University of Tennessee Extension Service taught lessons on etiquette and how to dress for success.
In November, Tennessee Rep. Kevin Brooks will share insights on government and the political process. Next spring, Money Management will be the topic from UT Extension.
Jones said the students find the many aspects of ITLT very meaningful in addition to a lot of fun.
Many community partners work with ITLT to provide community service projects for the students, including the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, The Refuge, Animal Ark, and Habitat for Humanity. The program is always looking for new opportunities to get the students involved.
“It’s really amazing how much the students enjoy the community service projects and want to be involved in making the world better,” Jones said. “One of the ITLT students has completed 35 hours of volunteer work this year. Community service projects not only introduce the students to the many ways of helping others in the community, but also provide an opportunity to practice the leadership skills they have been learning.”
The expanded opportunities have inspired the ITLT students to identify and address needs they see among their peers.
This year the ITLT students worked over the summer on a special project through their own initiative. They recognize that topics such as drugs, alcohol, and sexual behavior are addressed in school; other prevalent issues among their peers of self-harming behaviors, such as cutting, eating disorders, and suicide are often not addressed. The students conducted research and met with Dr. John Vining, clinical director of Youth Counseling Services, to make sure they were providing accurate information.
The presentation is designed to raise awareness among middle school students on the dangers of self-harming behaviors and provide information on how to respond if they know someone who is struggling with these behaviors. The students are willing to deliver this presentation in a variety of settings, such as churches, after-school programs, and school settings. They will be making the presentation at Broad Street United Methodist in January.
The students are seeking other opportunities in the community to help raise awareness and provide information on self-harming behaviors.
“Developing leadership skills is hard work, but the group also makes sure to have fun,” Jones shared. “One of the highlights of the program is our annual retreat at Horn’s Creek Resort. There are leadership classes and team-building activities woven together with a lot of time to get to know each other better and just have fun together.”
Twice a year, the regular ITLT meetings are replaced with a fun activity before winter break and before the end of the school year.
“Last year we played laser tag and did a gift exchange before winter break and went roller skating before the end of the school year,” Jones said.
They also found time over the summer to take in a Chattanooga Lookouts Baseball game and enjoy tubing on the Ocoee River.
Fifteen-year-old Cleveland High School student Destiny shared her story.
“I joined ITLT in the summer of 2012. A friend invited me on a cross-cultural trip to Georgia that the group was taking,” Destiny shared. “On the trip we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. [National Historic Site and] museum, a Mennonite village, and the Habitat for Humanity Global Village. We also did some fun things like go to the Coca-Cola Factory and to Six Flags.”
Continued Destiny, “I stayed in ITLT because I like the community service opportunities and the values that the group has taught me. My favorite community service event so far was when we went to Morningside Assisted Living center.”
“The first time we went, we made Easter crafts with the residents. The second time, we played bingo with them. I liked walking around and inviting the residents to come join us for the activities. I also liked talking to them and hearing their stories. Another community service event I really enjoyed was going to Chattanooga for the Multiple Sclerosis Color Run.”
Concluded Destiny, “The most important thing I have learned in ITLT so far is how to speak in public and have a conversation with someone I just met. I am shy, and without this group I would not be comfortable doing either of those things. The group also teaches us how to become leaders. It teaches about morals, values, and what type of person you are. I would recommend ITLT to anyone who wants to learn more about themselves and make a difference in their community.”
Strong leadership skills and being able to work with different types of people are essential for future success in the workforce and in personal life. Being committed to involvement in one’s community and the world is key to ensuring a positive environment for the future. ITLT helps students embrace these skills.
“I believe every student has the potential to be a strong leader, but they need to be given the opportunity to develop those skills in a safe environment,” shared Jones.
Students can join the program at any time by calling Chrissy Jones at 559-1112, and there is no cost to participate.
The second component of BICC’s Youth Development Program is the Bridging the Gap Mentoring Program, also directed by Jones.
Many students do not have the luxury of a two-parent home or caring adults in their lives to help nurture them through their developing years. BTG’s mission is to nurture mentoring relationships for youth that encourage positive decisions and academic success. The program seeks caring adults willing to give one hour a week to be in one-to-one relationships with students between the ages of 6 and 16. Adult support is a critical factor in a child’s success— academically, socially and emotionally.
During their time together, mentors and mentees play games, do crafts, work on homework, and spend time talking about what is important to the mentee. The program encourages them to learn new skills together, helping the mentee to think about their hopes for the future and how they can begin to set goals to achieve their dreams. Helping the mentee to monitor the progress toward these goals is part of the learning process.
“There are so many youth in our community who can greatly benefit from having a mentor. Students have a natural desire to feel support and encouragement from adults. Parents and caregivers are many times overwhelmed with the pressures of life and providing for their family. In these cases, too often the youth feels left out or unimportant, causing them to seek fulfillment in other, sometimes negative, ways,” Jones stated. “Mentors are able to help provide some of the much needed one-on-one attention in the life of a youth. Interestingly, research has shown that relationships with parents and caregivers often improve when a child has a mentor, making this a win-win situation for the family.”
Being a mentor is an extremely rewarding service and also carries significant responsibilities. Persons interested in becoming mentors go through an application and interview process, followed by a background check and drug screening.
Upon acceptance into the program, there is a four-hour orientation and training required before actually being paired with a mentee. Because a mentoring relationship has such powerful potential to impact the youth for their future, personality styles and areas of interest of both mentee and mentor are considered when making the best possible match. Typically, within a few meetings a mentor is able to notice a positive difference in the mentee. The relationship quickly develops into being a special time in the week for both mentees and mentors.
Chrissy says, “The only way to meet the need in our community is for many adults to each give a little bit.”
Those interested in mentoring and changing a child’s life can call Jones to sign up at 559-1112.
Brenda Hughes, BICC executive director, said, “The Youth Development Programs are seen as very strategic in BICC’s focus of strengthening families. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach for families. The Starfish and Transitions Programs require parent involvement; as a result, youth whose parents are not able or willing to participate in the programs are excluded from the benefits. Therefore, the youth programs are critical components that focus directly on youth as part of the overall goal of strengthening families.”
For more information of how to become a mentor, mentee or to join ITLT, check out the BICC website at www.bicc-inc.org.