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Written by:  Robin Whitsell
Date: May 1, 2009

Media reports about teenagers often focus on negative news: athletes behaving badly, women actors woefully under-dressing and singers arrested for flaunting weapons or beating up their significant others. But don't let the bad press for Generation Y fool you.

Today's teens are connecting with issues and taking action to make a difference. According to an October 2006 online study of 1,800 Millennials (people born roughly between 1979-2001) called the Cone Millennial Cause Study, 61 percent of respondents felt a personal responsibility for making the world a better place. Locally, Triangle teens are having a real impact on their communities, peers and schools.

Setting an example for younger children

Carrboro High School student Kristina Witcher, 17, moves year-round due to her athletic pursuits: track and field, swimming and cross-country. However, through her experience on the Bouncing Bulldogs jump rope team, she is involved with younger kids. The Chapel Hill teen trains the next generation of jumpers, many of whom are as young as 5.

"When I was a kid, I used to think the older kids were amazing. They are so much older, and they are on this [ability] level that you really want to get to. You want little kids to see you like you saw them," Witcher says.

The honor student with a 4.3 GPA spends Saturday mornings working with the younger kids while also fitting in her own jumping schedule with her Bulldog teammates, who have won national and international recognition.

Witcher credits her Bulldog's coach, Ray N. Fredrick Jr., along with her parents, with being role models for her. And she takes her place as a role model seriously. "If my bad behavior is going to make another kid behave badly, I don't want to be that person," she says.

Along with the technical skills, Witcher shares her perseverance and positive attitude. Although learning a new trick takes a lot of practice, Witcher teaches with patience. "I don't feel a lot of frustration in just teaching. Obviously, when kids are acting up and running around and not wanting to learn, that's hard. But when kids want to learn, even if it takes 50 tries, when they get it, it's so rewarding."

Witcher feels strongly about the positive influence young people make on their communities. Her team experience taught her about conflict resolution, dependability and the unique contribution that each team member makes. After all, you can't jump double-dutch by yourself. "I've learned that it's not about me. It's about society and what I'm going to give to the people around me and how I'm going to carry myself," Witcher says. "The little things you do matter. Just a smile and a high-five with the little kids can make a difference."

Reaching out to peers

Olivia Symone Ellis primarily helps her community of peers. The 15-year-old Henderson teen is a sophomore at Northern Vance High School where she is a power forward on the basketball team, a successful fundraiser for the Henderson Garden Club and a past Garden Club Queen. In addition to carrying a 3.75 GPA and dancing for her church dance ministry and the Candy Girls step team, Ellis tutors her fellow students at Northern Vance.

Ellis' high school faces challenges that include a majority of students performing below state averages in end-of-course testing, and Vance County has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state, according to 2006 statistics from N.C. Division of Public Health.

Despite the grim statistics, Ellis rises above. "Henderson is limited, but I think you have to try to be somebody. They always say how people in Henderson can never be anyone, and you try to prove them wrong. I think I'm a good person and capable. I can accomplish whatever is thrown at me," Ellis says.

In addition to her peer tutoring, Ellis frequently has fellow students asking her for advice. "They may come up to me and seem sad and have problems at home. It depends on the situation what I tell them. I always tell them to keep their heads up and set their minds to doing things, making something out of themselves," she says.

She relies on her faith and feels that is an option for finding answers. "I also tell them that they can always turn to God and pray about it," Ellis says.

Ellis' older sister and parents have been strong role models in her life. And she thinks older generations shouldn't make generalizations about teenagers. "You may see teenagers on the street or on the news. You are looking at the negative things they do and not the positive. You should look at the positive, and you'll see a big difference."

Providing opportunities for others

Connor Bernstein knows about focusing on the positive. The 14-year-old Carrboro teen divides his time between Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw and home-schooling with his mom, while also running a business. Bernstein, with help from his mother, owns the Web-based company Kits for Kids (www.kitsforkids.com) that sells kid-focused science kits.

Even with these commitments, Bernstein volunteers at the Kramden Institute (www.kramden.org) in Durham. Kramden is a nonprofit that refurbishes donated computers and provides them to economically disadvantaged kids. "It means a lot to me to volunteer," Berstein says. The kids who come to the Kramden Institute "are already probably working as hard as they can to get good grades. They really want to succeed. It's not necessary that this hold them back. It's a big disadvantage not to have a computer. They can use this to help with school productivity and working at home."

He recognizes that not all kids have had the opportunities that have been available for him. "I was completely passionate and ready to go, but if my mom hadn't stuck with me I wouldn't have had a business. If I hadn't been referred to the business school [UNC-Kenan Flagler] last year, I wouldn't have the opportunities I've had," Bernstein says.

He believes providing computers for talented kids allows them to have similar opportunities. "I think it's good for younger kids to realize how fortunate they are and take the opportunity to give back."

Bernstein counts his parents and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs among his inspirations. He wants other parents to focus on the positive with their kids. "Don't go into a situation expecting the worst. If you completely expect that [your kid] is going to be bad, your kid isn't going to want to do what you want because they will get that vibe from you," he says.

Understanding privilege and poverty

Fellow Kramden volunteer and Athens Drive High School senior Taylor Pardue feels strongly about the influence of privilege in the lives of those around him. The 18-year-old believes that most people don't understand the meaning of poverty.

"I think for anyone that comes from a suburban background and lives in a middle-class family, it's important to put a face on poverty. These kids aren't starving or living on the streets, but they still have less than the people I know. To be well-rounded you need to meet people you aren't accustomed to," he says.

Pardue believes poverty is cyclical. "I think if you look at the stats, if you start out poor, you stay poor. If you start rich, you stay rich. There has to be something we can do that allows every kid to have an opportunity."

In addition to his volunteer work, Pardue is on the varsity basketball squad, captain of the tennis team, a rower on Wake Rowing team and an officer with his school's National Honor Society. The Raleigh teen also is ranked first in his class with a 5.0 GPA. Despite his impressive resume, Pardue is modest about his accomplishments.

"I've never been the quickest, fastest or strongest, but I've always had an interest in sports," he says. "[With] academics, my parents are smart people, and I bet genetics play a role in that, and my upbringing, too."

Although he hopes his actions speak to those around him, Pardue is not quick to call himself a role model. "I wouldn't consider myself a vocal role model. Maybe my actions lead others. I feel like I'm a hard worker in school, and I hope to compete as hard as I can in sports."

Pardue advises parents to stay focused on the relationship they have with their kids. "I would say you first have to be the parent and relate in that way. Even though, obviously, as teenagers we want more independence. You are the ultimate authority in that relationship. There are a lot of good kids out there, and the media portrays the American teenager today as partying and doing that sort of stuff all the time. The majority of kids are still good people and have positive things to bring to society."

Raising money to help others

A recent graduate from Clayton High School, Natalie Davis says that teens have a great deal to offer their communities. After her grandfather had a heart attack in a Wal-Mart and was saved by an American Red Cross CPR-trained stranger, the 19-year-old started fund-raising for the American Red Cross.

"I wanted to get involved. I learned a bunch about the Red Cross, and I did it as my senior project," Davis says. She was crowned the American Red Cross Queen of Hearts and served as a spokesperson for the organization.

Davis' community interest extends beyond her involvement with the health and safety organization. While still in high school, she was an active member of the Future Business Leaders of America, the Clayton Youth Council and the service group Interact. She currently works in a day care facility and wants to pursue elementary art education to help future students realize their creativity.

Davis believes that teenagers recognize how their decisions impact their futures and their communities.

"When you're a teenager, you start making your own decisions. Decisions you make when you're 15 will affect you when you're 20. So if you start out with helping the community, you will be on that path. It's easy to follow everyone else. I've always done what I wanted to do, and I look back and realize the good things I did [were] because I wasn't worried about being cool."

Robin Whitsell is a freelance writer who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and three daughters.



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