North Side Y reaches out to at-risk Union County youths

Shannon CareyHalls

If you think the Bob Temple North Side YMCA is just a gym and a pool, you need to take a closer look. There’s a lot going on at the Y, a lot that targets folks in need, and a lot that helps build a stronger community.

One such program is reaching across county lines to find at-risk youth in Union County, give them positive experiences and role models, and help them find ways to be successful. While the students involved will ultimately name the program, leader Creech Hardee is calling it the YMCA Leadership and Mentoring Program.

Through a grant from the Department of Justice given to the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, Hardee visits young people at the Union County Alternative Learning Center, where Union County High School students go for suspensions and other disciplinary issues. He mentors and tutors them, then provides support when they go back to the high school. He even gathered and trained a group of high school peer mentors to help returning students avoid bad behavior. YMCA intern Jodi Anderson has been working with the program, and Hardee said she’ll come on board full time when she graduates from UT in December 2018.

“You really need a strong, young female voice and positive role model for the girls in the program because I’m limited in how I can reach young ladies,” said Hardee. “She is awesome, and she’s going to be working more and more over the summer.”

Some students in the program are in the juvenile court system, and their court-appointed volunteer hours are served at the North Side Y under Hardee’s supervision. He also attends their court dates.

While Hardee’s work in Union County is only one semester old, it’s already seen success. Hardee said that 12 out of the 13 students who have returned to the high school from the Alternative Center in the fall semester have completed the semester with no more behavior problems.

“We’ve just begun the process of collecting data,” Hardee said. “We have the full support of the school administration, the school board, and the principals of both schools.”

Why pick Union County? Hardee said the issues facing kids in rural counties tend to run parallel to those facing kids in urban settings. Opiate addiction is having an impact on families. Many students are living with their grandparents, living in poverty or in unsafe family situations.

“Within the school system itself and the teachers and the state park and the people that really know the issues that these kids are facing, we have huge support,” Hardee said. “They’ve welcomed our program with open arms.”

Another facet of the program includes outdoor excursions to Big Ridge State Park, providing experiences in nature every other Friday and some weekends for students who meet certain behavior and academic goals. Hardee said it’s a “huge misconception” that young people from rural backgrounds have plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors.

“Of the kids who we’ve taken backpacking and camping, I’d say maybe two of them have ever camped overnight in a tent,” he said. “You’d think that being in a rural community that being outdoors would just be part of their life, but they’re in their electronics just like everyone else. It’s a way to escape when they go home because a lot of them don’t want to go home. They need something to do outdoors, but they don’t have bikes or camping gear.”

Some help from River Sports gained the program some good backpacks and camping gear, so Hardee and the students have made a project of cleaning up the three backcountry campsites at Big Ridge.

Hardee is looking forward to increased involvement at the high school, where he will soon have an office, allowing him to follow up with students returning to the high school from the Alternative Center.

“To have a presence at the high school will be really big,” he said. “I’m not the principal. I’m not a teacher. I’m an outside individual, and I have the ability to approach it differently, and my doing that it allows us to help the student and communicate with the teachers more about what the student needs. In some cases, we’re finding that students will tell Jodi and myself something that they will not tell teachers or guidance counselors.”

Hardee said he’s always looking for people who are willing to come and speak with the students and perhaps serve in a mentorship role.

“It takes a special person with special dedication. These are not easy kids to deal with, but I would love to have as many people as possible,” he said. “I don’t think people fully understand the power of having one or two individuals in a kid’s life that take an interest in what they do. I think these kids, they literally feel like they’re just thrown away. We’re changing that culture, and of course it’s not done without the leadership of the teachers and the principal there at the school. It takes that one spark, that one connection for the kids.”

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