Hooper: Teen Achievers program lights paths for students

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Published June 4 2015
Updated June 5 2015

GIBSONTON — The Eisenhower Middle School students I recently spoke to proved engaging and attentive.

They asked more questions than some other student groups and appeared genuinely interested in my ramblings about career and life.

At the end, I asked them what they wanted me to write about their school. They threw out some suggestions and as I concluded, I passed out my business cards and told them if they had more ideas, send me an email.

Rarely do I get a response with this request. Most students, especially those in middle school, bypassed email (and Facebook) in the beginning of their social media venture and went straight to Instagram and Snapchat.

A few days later, however, eighth-grader Brianna Pelosi sent a note.

"Can you write about the YMCA coming to Eisenhower and doing the Teen Achievers program?" Brianna asked. "Teen Achievers has brought out the real us and made us feel comfortable with everyone around us. It's helped us know what we want to do after we graduate."

It was the YMCA's Teen Achievers program that brought me to Eisenhower, but it wasn't until I received Brianna's email that I truly understood its impact.

Since the Y started the program at Blake High in 2009, Teen Achievers has targeted students who weren't fulfilling their potential and inspired them to realize that through hard work, they can craft and achieve dreams.

Now it's in six schools — Blake, Eisenhower, Sligh Middle, Turkey Creek Middle, Pasco Middle and Zephyrhills High. At each, the program has helped students improve academic performance and develop a more positive self-image. They meet frequently and discuss setting goals, leadership and visioning. Various speakers come in and detail their paths to success.

"It opens up a lot of kids' lives to the different paths and different ways they can go in life," said Dan Ribas, who oversees the Eisenhower effort while serving as the senior program director of the new YMCA at Big Bend Road. "It's helped them to understand they have plenty of options out there and can create new goals."

Wayne Johnson, who found inspiration to help teens while fighting in the Gulf War, guides the overall program and is a senior program director. He notes that it has been particularly effective in urban areas because it brings in role models who inspire the students.

"It's good for them to see people who talk like them, walk like them and come from the neighborhood but have elevated above the people they see who haven't gone to college, who aren't working," Johnson noted.

The kids also take field trips to different businesses and college campuses like the University of South Florida. The exposure further nurtures their dreams.

Johnson added that the Turkey Creek Middle effort aims at migrant kids, a particularly appreciative group that soaks up the advice while dealing with frequent moves to pick and plant.

What I love is that both Johnson and Ribas, who found his way into the Y family working as a teen at the Bob Sierra YMCA in Northdale, speak to the students in a direct but caring manner.

They don't talk down to them or at them, but they give respect and in exchange they get respect. Johnson said the kids are smart enough to discern when someone isn't sincere.

My goal was to inspire the students with that same sincerity, but Brianna Pelosi ended up inspiring me.

That's all I'm saying.