Program combats teenage suicide issues

By Tony E. Windsor

The recent suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams has shed an international spotlight on the tragic issues of depression and suicide. Two years ago in Delaware it was also similar tragedies that sparked a state effort to combat suicide among its youth. There were 11 deaths by suicide among youths aged 12-21 years in Kent and Sussex counties between Jan. 1 and May 4, 2012, and another 116 non-fatal attempted suicides in that same period of time. These suicide deaths represent a portion of the 29 suicides that occurred among youth ages 12-21 throughout Delaware from January to May of 2012.

While the 11 suicides in Kent and Sussex counties largely involved existing mental health issues, family problems and relationship issues, four of the 11, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study commissioned by the Delaware Division of Public Health, had experienced peer issues and issues relative to sexual orientation. This suggests that violence and bullying may have played a role.

This prompted Delaware Gov. Jack Markell to seek opportunities to support initiatives in the First State that supported positive prevention activities during the after-school hours. In the FY 2014 budget, Markell proposed $2.2 million for special after-school activities that would address namely youth violence and suicide prevention. The state legislature supported Markell's proposal and funds in the form of grants were allocated through the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families (DSCYF).

Applicants for funding were required to submit proposals that included evidence based practices or programs related to preventing youth violence and/or youth suicide. They were also required to include positive opportunities for youth that they might not otherwise have a chance to be exposed to. The grant recipients will be funded through June 2015 subject to continued funding appropriation in the Department's FY15 budget

In all, 13 recipients from non-profits across Delaware received the funding. Among those were six Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware sites located in all three Delaware counties. This includes the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club with clubs in Seaford and Laurel. Gov. Markell said the youth initiatives are diverse in activities, but all represent a positive environment for kids.

These places will be providing children with safe and welcoming spaces to do homework, play and enjoy being a kid," Markell said. This is about creating opportunities for young people with positive experiences and after school activities that promote their intellectual growth and self-esteem."

Joining Markell in lauding the positive youth opportunities was Lt. Gov. Matt Denn who echoed the governor's sentiments and added that the funding recipients will deliver a strong impact on Delaware young people. The programs that were selected are very diverse in their makeup. They cover academics, exposure to nature, music and the arts, bullying, suicide and pregnancy prevention programming, sports and athletics, healthy living, life skills and self-esteem building," Denn said. I feel confident that the programs being offered are going to have a long-term impact on the kids who participate in them."

Additionally, suicide prevention training will be provided to staff of all of the selected programs so that they can assist in identifying at-risk youth. The prevention program initiative is partly an outgrowth of the initial recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the 2012 adolescent suicides in Kent County which pointed to a lack of after-school activities for youth in Kent and Sussex counties.

The Seaford and Laurel Boys & Girls Clubs are joining the other clubs in providing a special teen program called T.I.T.A.N. (Teens Inspired To Act Now)." According to Stuart Sherman, director of the Greater Newark Boys & Girls Club and statewide coordinator for the T.I.T.A.N. Program, the overall goal of the teen program is to engage young people in positive activities to deter them from getting involved in risky behavior including violence and bullying that creates an unhealthy environment for youth. The T.I.T.A.N. Program is helping to provide positive youth programming that can help reduce poor school performance, unhealthy behaviors and even suicide," he said.

Sherman said the DSCYF funding will enable clubs to be open on Friday nights from 7 p.m. until midnight in an effort to serve teens. Friday nights are used as a way to introduce teens to the clubs and the programs we offer. Once the kids are in the club, we encourage them to participate in educational and prevention based programs throughout the week," Sherman said.

One such prevention program is Positive Action," an evidence-based anti-bullying program aimed at high school students. The goal of the program is to teach the teens and help them develop into leaders within the Club and their greater communities," Sherman said. The younger kids look up to them, so they have the power to pass lessons and educational messages down to younger youth."

Since the T.I.T.A.N. Program started in May, Sherman said well over 1,050 young people have been actively involved in the Friday night and weekday programming at the six Boys & Girls Clubs sites. In Seaford and Laurel the T.I.T.A.N. Program has resulted in an enthusiastic response from teen participants.

In May, a special anti-bullying rally was held at the Western Sussex County Boys & Girls Club in Seaford.

The rally was one of three that was held in all three Delaware counties. The rallies, presented by the group Shout b Cause, were a way of kicking off the T.I.T.A.N. Program in Delaware.

The pep rallies focused its message around something very familiar to young people, texting acronyms that have become the universal language for kids to communicate with each other. However, traditional, well-known acronyms are twisted to drive home the anti-bullying messages. For example, BFF is now Bullies Fizzle Fast" and NBD is now No Bullying Delaware."

Since starting in May both the Seaford and Laurel B&G Club sites have experienced impressive numbers of teens who come to the club as part of the T.I.T.A.N. Program. In Seaford as many as 130 teens attend the Friday night events and 70 are participating during the Wednesday Positive Action programming. The Laurel club is seeing similar involvement from local young people with average attendance for Friday nights at about 110 and Wednesday's at about 60 teens.

Kevin Jefferson, teen coordinator at the Laurel Boys & Girls Club, said he has seen as many as 95 teens come to the club for the Wednesday activities, something he finds to be inspiring. My immediate goal is to get those attendance numbers up to 100 regular participants," he said. The only requirement is to be between the ages of 12 and 18 and in school. It doesn't matter where you live."

Jefferson said the T.I.T.A.N. Program in Laurel is targeting the 700 young people ages 12 to 18, who attend Laurel Middle and High schools. We are also reaching out to 2,000 youth ages 5 to 11 with special anti-bullying presentations that will be delivered by T.I.T.A.N." teens who will be trained through program opportunities," he said.

A local businessman, Jefferson sees an opportunity through the T.I.T.A.N. Program to also help teenagers increase their knowledge regarding how to handle money. A graduate of Seaford High School, Jefferson went on to obtain a bachelor's degree in business from Delaware State University and in 2010 he earned a master's degree in business administration from Wilmington University. He wants to apply his business knowledge and experience to helping young people learn to be responsible with money. Jefferson said he would like to see the T.I.T.A.N. Program expand in Laurel and include a Money Matters" curriculum and expose teens to career fairs, college tours and involvement in community service projects.

A former Boys & Girls Club member, Jefferson enjoys being able to mentor young people and help them deal with the challenges of growing up. He has been a youth basketball coach for the past 15 years, so his job at the Boys & Girls Club seems to be a perfect fit.

I was once a [Boys & Girls] club kid when the organization first opened in Seaford on Arch Street," he said. Then after I graduated from high school I worked part-time for the club. Ten years later I was approached about becoming a Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club board member, so I served in that capacity for three years. When I heard about the opportunity to work for the Boys & Girls Club as a teen coordinator, I stepped down from the board in order to work directly with the kids."

Working with teens has been a hallmark of Boys & Girls Clubs in Delaware since the organization opened its doors in Wilmington in 1926, as the Boys Club of Wilmington." Over the years the organization has grown to provide positive youth development to children as young as preschool up to 18. The T.I.T.A.N. Program, with its emphasis on teenagers, is enabling the organization to reach out to a very mobile and technologically sophisticated generation of young people with activities that local young people seem to be very excited about.

Chris Couch, executive director of the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club, in Seaford and Laurel, says the T.IT.A.N. Program is a great tool for reaching out to a very significant and highly at-risk group, the area's teenagers. The T.I.T.A.N. Program has opened our doors to hundreds of teens at the Laurel and Seaford Boys and Girls Clubs during at the primary risk hours," he said. We have been amazed at the number of teens who have joined the T.I.T.A.N. Program. We are averaging over 240 teens on Friday, and 130 teens on Wednesday, between the two clubs."

In the scope of what Boys & Girls Clubs do in the way of youth development, this is vital Couch says. The teens now have a place to go with caring adults and mentors who are guiding them through life-enhancing programs and character development experiences," he said. As the teen program continues to grow we are providing a structure for teens to engage in community service projects, and workshops in which they can discuss issues and concerns facing teens today."

Delaware Children's Department Cabinet Secretary Jennifer Ranji said Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware and the other community service organizations that are developing program initiatives as part of the state's suicide prevention funding are helping to expand a network of support for young people.

We are building on and expanding our network of community service providers to create a safety net of resources for children," said Secretary Ranji. Our goal is to build on their strengths in order to develop stronger, more resilient children who are empowered to envision a hopeful and successful future."

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