4th Annual Teen Conference

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Last Sat., Aug. 30, teens gathered at the Wildwood Recreation Center, located at 1000 28th St. S., to hear an array of speakers discuss the power of the right choice. The City of St. Pete Parks & Recreation Campbell Park Teen Programs put on the event in the hopes to get young adults in the community to wake up, act right and use their common sense.

Carlos Daniels, supervisor at Campbell Park Recreation Center, put together the event. Its mission is to get preteens and teens to open up and become aware of how to act so that they don’t put themselves in a situation that will lead to jail time, or possibly their own death.

“We want to reenergize teens so that you all can make positive, right choices in the near future,” said Daniels. “We want you all to do the right thing.”

Teens were engaged as a myriad of speakers stood in front of them with their stories and words of inspiration. Daniels knows there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of extra guidance and support, no matter who you are and encouraged the teens to surround themselves with positive people who are willing to give an ear and listen when things get tough.

“We want the teens to take something away from what is being said today,” he averred. Teens were encouraged to take out their notebook and pencil so they could jot down the messages with the most meaning for them.

City officials such as Councilmen Wengay Newton, Steve Kornell, Karl Nurse and Urban Affairs Manager Nikki Gaskin-Capehart were present as Pastor Dexter McCree of Anointed Word Fellowship told teens how to make the most of their experience at the conference. Music played as the attendees were made to swap their seats and sit next to someone they didn’t know. An effort to get teens to realize different viewpoints.

Perhaps the most influential speaker of the day came when Circuit Court Judge Michael Andrews took to the microphone.

“Attitude equals altitude,” he said. Andrews knows firsthand that the right attitude can get you far and where you want to go. He grew up in a too-small house along with seven siblings and a mother on welfare. He failed both the second and fourth grade. By fifth, he had already been kicked out of school. But he went on to college, was a teacher, an assistant state attorney and finally a judge.

“I am not supposed to be here,” he said citing that according to statistics growing up in abject poverty and failing in school put him in jeopardy of that infamous pipeline to prison. “Except the only person who gets to make the decision as to who I’m going to be is me.”

Andrews wholeheartedly believes you are who you hang with. His PowerPoint presentation showed teens that seemingly fell into what their parents called the wrong crowd. Teens that made the choice to burglarize, rape and even kill, and who will be spending the rest of their lives in prison – all because of bad choices.

“You show me your friends and I will show you your future,” he said. Andrews explained to the youths that doctors spend time with doctors, lawyers with lawyers and smart people with other smart people. He put it bluntly to the teens when he said drug dealers are hanging out with drug dealers, prostitutes with prostitutes. “If you’re hanging around the wrong people, you’re going to go down the wrong path.”

Even though Andrews spoke for nearly an hour, teens were listening, some of it hitting home. When asked to recite the simple mantra, “I refuse to be an ordinary person,” they did so willingly and with determination. For extraordinary people, Andrews put it, are leaders walking down their own path, making their own decisions, following their own dreams. Not being followers.

When things go wrong, extraordinary people make adjustments to the plan and make corrections, not excuses. Andrews explained to the teens that hard work and practice are what get you far in life. That there are no free rides.

“Whatever you do most, is what you will do best,” he said adding that each person is responsible for their choices in life whether it be to remain positive or negative, focused or distracted, a part of the problem or a problem solver. “Building blocks,” is how he put it. Making that decision to put in that extra effort to be you and work toward a dream every day. “You can’t just decide to turn it on.”

The 4th Annual Teen Conference labeled “The Power of the Right Choice” continued with City of St. Petersburg Teen Supervisor Alvin Shirley, who grew up in the Childs Park neighborhood, shared his views of social awareness tools for teens and young adults called M.E.D.D.S.

“Every day young people your age are being killed,” said Shirley who wants kids to think of situations in a different manner before they act. He went on to express his viewpoint that society no longer cherishes the youth as the future, but instead believes the life of teenagers is not valuable. “So if you give them a reason to take it, they will.”

M.E.D.D.S. stands for Mind your own business, Engagement rules, Diffuse, Disengage and Seek help. All points Shirley took the time to go over with teens. What it amounts to is common sense. A trait he said some teenagers forget when they need it most.

“That puts you in a situation that otherwise you might have been able to avoid,” said Shirley who encouraged the teens to walk away from potentially violent situations and to let an adult handle any conflicts.

Principal Barry Brown from John Hopkins Middle School shared a story about a phenomenal athletic that would constantly stay in trouble in the neighborhood. In his senior year he went to jail on a gun charge and his college basketball scholarship was taken from him.

“Scholarship gone, mother humiliated, all was lost. Didn’t graduate from high school, didn’t do grad night, didn’t do prom; he lost everything,” said Brown.

Eventually the charges were dropped and the young man ended up graduating from Tomlinson’s Mirror Lake, attending St. Petersburg Junior College and finally making it to a university and having a decent basketball career, but his story was not about the career, it was about the journey.

This young man had the opportunity to stay out of trouble, graduate high school and attend Jackson University on a basketball scholarship, but instead he detoured his life and had to work extra hard to earn back a second time what he had earned years before.

“This is my story,” Brown admitted. You guys can be anything you want to be if you seize the right opportunity.”

More speakers gave the children wise information and scenarios for the rest of the program, all with important information, statistics and even pictures of addicts from one arrest to another depicting a life that if it doesn’t kill you, you surely will deteriorate your appearance among other things.

The conference gave the youth the power to make the right choices, but ultimately it rests in the hands of the parent and children. Hopefully those notebooks were filled and instead of passing around illegal substances when out with their friends, maybe just maybe, they’ll pass the information they learned at the conference instead.

In between the main speakers there was entertainment to keep the teens interested and moving around. From songstress Lekita Hamilton, to the Campbell Park Dancers, to national recording artist Slick Ali featuring Sojo and Mizzim, the kids were exposed to some fun. The teens were encouraged to sing and dance along with the entertainers.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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