New program addresses common teen struggles
August 22, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash.--The moment 17-year-old Bryan Arroyo placed a small foam ball into the hands of one of his peers Aug. 18, something else happened that only he truly understood.
"This is a test, this is a quiz, and this is an exam," he said as he handed 15-year-old Amanda Schafers the ball, which, for him, symbolized the stresses of schoolwork and academic testing " stresses he was letting go.
Schafers, the daughter of an Army sergeant, collected foam ball after foam ball from fellow military teens " some stood for dating stresses, some for parental conflicts " until she dropped nearly all of them.
The exercise, which may sound a tad strange to the outsider, is what Sandi Doyle, a program specialist with the Family Advocacy Program on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., used to depict how a barrage of teen life stressors can eventually overflow, pushing some, in extreme cases, to suicide.
The routine was just one part of a daylong series of group discussions between military teens called the Youth Resiliency Academy. The program, which began at Fort Riley, Kan., and was brought to JBLM in May, is a monthly initiative by Army Community Services to bring together adolescents from within military communities, encourage healthy peer-to-peer communication and equip the teens with skills they can apply to all their lives' stressful situations.
Chief Master Sgt. Dedra Lewis, the JBLM garrison command senior enlisted advisor, who met with the teens attending the program and applauded their participation, said the class brings resiliency and a sense of belonging to teens dealing with the struggles of military life, the biggest of those being frequent moves across the country and sometimes the rest of the world.
"This class provides them the tools that can help them adjust better," said Lewis, who also presented certificates to the teens at the end of the day. "There's an understanding here that they have a voice also, and they're involved, and they need to adjust, too."
Russell Cron, the outreach coordinator for ACS on JBLM and the administrator for the Youth Resiliency Academy, said the academy falls underneath the Army-wide Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, a mass effort that uses individual assessments, classroom training and, in some cases, resilience experts, to provide Soldiers and their families the aids necessary to cope with the frustrations of military life.
CSF has long reached out to Soldiers and their spouses, but teen outreach, like what's accomplished through the Youth Resiliency Academy, is something that's been less available in the past, Cron explained.
The academy brings in specialists from a variety of different programs on JBLM to introduce teens to topics like suicide prevention; bullying and peer pressure; healthy peer-to-peer communication; transitioning with the changes that accompany military life; employment and finances; and avoiding abuse both as a victim and a predator in dating relationships.
But most important of all, Cron says, is communication.
"This is an era where young people are communicating a lot of data back and forth " with social media " and they're texting constantly, but are they communicating with what we would consider classical communication?" he said. "If they can effectively communicate a situation, they learn that they're not isolated."
Kim Crosby, the JBLM site manager for Families Overcoming Under Stress, an Army program that provides resiliency training to military families, agrees whole-heartedly with that sentiment.
"The most important piece is that these kids feel like they can share what's on their minds, and they feel like they have at least a few starting tools to be able to say 'hey, I'm having a hard time with this,'" she said.
"It's important to feel heard and understood; that's really a key foundation of communication and having relationships that last," she added.
What stood out to 15-year-old Bridgette Francis, though, is suicide prevention.
As someone whose best friend once consulted her about having contemplated killing himself, she could relate.
"He's my best friend " the first person I could call a best friend " so I felt devastated," Francis said, recalling the moment he confessed it to her. "I started crying and bawling."
The odd part, she said, is that her friend always smiled. Luckily, Francis knew what to say, since she'd researched the topic for a paper in seventh grade.
But she says at the Youth Resiliency Academy teens, some of whom may not be as well-versed as she is on the subject, can leave at the end of the day with the right tools.
"You learn more information about things you could use in the future and possibly what you could have used in the past," Francis said.
And that's information Arroyo, who admits he'd never thought about stress the way Doyle posed it to him and the other nine teens in his class, is taking with him, because he, too, has had a brush with suicide.
"I know a few people at my high school who have thought about it, and one person who actually did it," he said. "It was shocking."
Arroyo once told someone about it before anything happened, but if he ever faces similar tragedy again, he says, he'll do things a little different.
"I'll take it more seriously," he said. "I wish (before) I had told someone sooner."
But all wishing aside, the end result to him is that he'll be better prepared in the future.
"I have more knowledge on exactly what I can do in the future," he said. "I can save someone " someone who has a family and friends and for some reason ends up in a rough spot."
"That's a huge thing to me," he added.