November 8, 2013

Werner Braun: Teen Maze a sobering endeavor

— Travel back with me to the early 1960s if you will.

Back then I was an inner-city Indianapolis high school student, a young first-time driver who impatiently navigated his way through a narrow one-lane school entrance every afternoon in a mad rush to get home from school.

About 500 of us teen drivers lined up to squeeze through that narrow exit in our cars every school day. We were fearless. Always in a hurry. Sometimes we were reckless. And some days, that high school parking lot looked a whole lot like a demolition derby.

But one day after school let out, the scene in that parking lot was completely transformed. The egress from the parking lot to the main road was slow, orderly and considerate. That’s because the entire student body had spent about half a day in an assembly viewing scenes from the so-called “Suicide Club,” a program put on by state troopers.

Those troopers showed us a series of photographic slides taken from accidents involving teenage drivers. The photos were so incredibly graphic — so incredibly gruesome — that they were incredibly hard to look at. Although it’s been 50 years or more since that day, I can still feel the impact of seeing the mangled bodies of those young lives that were tragically cut short. My guess is that many of my former classmates still remember those images, too. They definitely did that day, as the orderly egress from the parking lot definitively showed.

That program had a sobering effect on all of us. Likewise, the recent Teen Maze event seems to have had a sobering effect on thousands of our young people in Whitfield and Murray counties.

Teen Maze, sponsored by the Whitfield/Murray Drug Free Coalition and Whitfield Family Connection, was held at the North Georgia Agricultural Fairgrounds during the first week of October. Those sponsors partnered with our area school systems, including Dalton Public Schools, Whitfield County Schools, Murray County Schools and Christian Heritage School.

During that week, more than 2,300 10th graders from those schools participated in a week of interactive activities designed to replicate the types of situations teens often find themselves in, situations that frequently involve risky behavior such as drinking and driving.

The whole idea of this amazing program is to allow students to see firsthand how lifestyle choices can affect their whole futures, or lack thereof.

For example, students played an interactive “Game of Life” which randomly assigned roles to the young people that allowed them to examine consequences of life choices, including attending parties with underage drinkers, being witnesses to a deadly crash, attending their own funerals, winding up in either the emergency room, juvenile court or a pregnancy clinic.

All of these “real-world” scenarios are designed to encourage teens to make responsible choices when it comes to staring down the ubiquitous peer pressure that most teens deal with on a daily basis.

Local organizations in town also helped sponsor this event, including CRI member Shaw Industries, Walmart, Georgia Family Connection, Hamilton Medical Center, Chick-fil-A, Dan Combs State Farm, Caylor Industrial Sales, the North Georgia Agricultural Fairground, Courtyard by Marriott, Dalton State College and the Kiwanis Club of Dalton.

Steve Laird, newly-elected Dalton Board of Education member, was one of the most involved volunteers and served as treasurer for Teen Maze, helping to raise the thousands of dollars needed to put this program on through a wide network of corporate and private sponsorships.

Steve, director of contract administration with Shaw, was there every day and observed firsthand the impact that these “real-life” scenarios had on our area young people.

The crash scenes, hospital emergency room scenes, visits to juvenile court and the pregnancy clinic, and the funeral services were staged to reflect reality as much as possible, he said, with volunteers from fire and police departments, the hospital, the school systems, and the general community all coming together to make the experience unforgettable.

“The whole experience created an atmosphere to help a teenager realize, ‘I don’t want to go do this’ and ‘I don’t want my family to go through this,’” Steve said.

Students from the drama departments of area high schools “acted out” various roles, such as those of car accident victims or as parents of a teen who had just lost his life.

“One of our student participants observed that the scene was ‘about as real as you could get without being a real crash,’” Steve noted.

“When I was watching the crash scene, I saw the backs of around 120 heads each time,” he added. “That shows how engaged the students were. They couldn’t look away. The whole experience produced a strong visual impact that one student described as ‘life-changing stuff.’”

“This whole experience was tremendous,” Steve continued. “The key to the whole success of our first Teen Maze was the level of community involvement in helping change teens’ lives.”

Perhaps this is an example of the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.

Whether there’s any truth to that or not, it certainly doesn’t hurt a soul when hundreds of caring, concerned adults give generously of their time to help impressionable youths navigate through some of the truly challenging decisions young people have to face.

We’re very fortunate to have volunteers like Steve Laird and countless others — about 300 or so — to thank for programs like Teen Maze.

If sponsoring a program like Teen Maze saves even one youth from making a poor life choice or becoming a victim of an early death, it will be program worth doing every year.

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.