Weakley County students attend TTI at UTM for 37th anniversary

Participating in this year’s Tennessee Teen Institute held on the UT Martin campus from Weakley County were (back, from left) Hannah Bilger, Leigha Fishburn, Allica Austin, Erin Walsh, Courtney Echols, Lamarious Stray, Gabrielle Barnett, Aallyah Pernell, Sydney Parimore; (middle, from left) Hannah Bennett, Laurriatah Walker, London Buchanan, Teaysa Allen, Lilli Brock, Larson Claiborne, Audri Ostrander, Shakia Curry, Adriene Livingston, Avriana Atchinson, Makenzie Lawrence, Zachery Harris; (front) Brooke Adams, Annabelle Lovell, Alyssa Staples, Gentry Lassiter, Sydney Vickers and Matthew Collier.

Shannon Taylor
MVP Senior Investigative Reporter

Twenty students from Weakley County Tennessee joined 490 youth leaders from across the state at the Tennessee Teen Institute held at the University of Tennessee at Martin from June 11-16. Weakley County students came with the Weakley County Prevention Coalition team, led by Courtney Echols, director of WCPC, who also took home the TTI Inspiration Award this year.

Echols said, “As a staff member and team advisor at TTI for 11 years, I have had the privilege of working with students from Weakley County. Witnessing firsthand the valuable skills and plans they bring back to implement in the community is why I continue to return year after year. TTI has proven to be an invaluable experience for our youth.”

According to a press release sent out by TTI, the Tennessee Teen Institute is a five-day youth leadership and prevention camp sponsored by the Jackson Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (JACOA). This year marked the 37th Anniversary of the Teen Institute Program in Tennessee and the 14th year of statewide TTI. 

The program addresses teen issues such as bullying, violence, suicide, teen pregnancy, distracted driving, teen health and substance abuse prevention through a five-day, peer-led prevention camp designed to provide teen participants with the skills and education necessary to develop and implement alcohol and drug abuse prevention programs in their own communities.

The program is comprehensive and trains, mobilizes and empowers youth to prevent the illegal use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs and self-destructive behaviors in themselves and their peers. TTI prepares students to not only make positive changes, but to be proud advocates of those changes. Students have the opportunity to grow and learn as individuals, while enhancing their leadership abilities.
Because TTI is peer-led, teens are given a unique opportunity to have a “voice” in addressing issues important to them.  Giving youth some ownership in this type of program is one of the key factors in the success of enforcing a substance free lifestyle.

The Tennessee Teen Institute is funded in part by grants from TN Department of Health, TN Department of Mental Health Division of Substance Abuse Services, TN Highway Safety Office and State Farm. JACOA, Jackson Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, is a nonprofit organization funded in part by the State of Tennessee, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. JACOA is the fiscal agent for TTI.

UTM hosted approximately 500 teen leaders, adult advisors and TTI staff. A press release issued by TTI stated that, “The participants leave motivated not only to make healthy decisions in their own lives, but also committed to work so that others are making healthy decisions in their communities as well.”

The TTI Shines award went to Harriet Magini, Justin Hendricks and Laura Drew Holmes. The volunteer of the year award went to Johnny Mae Swagerty. The drive smart award went to Amy McCurdy Richardson. The team advisor of the year award went to Kelly Lewis and the Prevention award for outstanding action plan went to Roane County Anti-Drug Coalition.

Weakley County students in attendance expressed their thoughts regarding the event also.

Alyssa Staples said, “TTI is important because it helps you understand prevention more and it’s such an amazing and outgoing experience. You get to make new friends, and you get to have fun while learning about prevention. I think youth should attend because it’s a great learning experience, and you are never bored at TTI you are always doing something, and all the peer leaders definitely make it worthwhile. My personal favorite thing about TTI is making new friends and, of course, the energizers.”

Makenzie Lawrence stated, “TTI is important to attend because you can learn all about how others overcame their hardships in life. From doing drugs to becoming someone comfortable telling their story and living a good life. You learn a lot of new things that go with prevention. While you’re at TTI, you get to meet new people, make friends, and just the experience, all in all, is a great and meaningful learning process which is my favorite thing to do while at TTI.”

Annabelle Lovell said, “This past year was my third time at TTI. TTI is important because it’s such a great thing to have in our community.
Youth/students should go to TTI because they’ll learn more about how they can make a difference in their communities. They’ll make so many new friends and create helpful relationships. I’ve loved going to TTI each year because I’ve met so many people there, I learn more about what I can do in my community and help myself become a better person!”

Director of TTI, Kristi Townes, spoke on this year’s event and said that they have had the event at UTM since 2016, but the event is for the entire state. The first event was held in 1986 in Sewanee, TN then the event split off into three events — one for east, middle and west TN — before becoming one united event for the State in 2009 with JACOA housing it.

Townes said that students involved in a team, made up of one adult and six students, around the state develop action plans where they discuss what their community or school needs as well as the resources available in their county and what kind of program they’d like to implement such as an information station, bringing a speaker to their school or doing a mock crash around prom time. Throughout the year, TTI follows these teams, called community action teams, to see their progress and post that to social media as well as offering help for teams that need it. It is from these teams that TTI recruits to attend the TTI event every year.

Townes said that TTI is peer led, with close to 85-90 volunteer staff, including youth staff, and 50 teams this year. Because of the growing number, they have decided to expand to two sessions next year. “The growth for this event is amazing, and we’re having two sessions so we can open the doors to new people to get to come,” Townes said.

Townes said that the event can be extremely emotional. “You get all kinds of emotions coming from the kids that are there. It is very much a safe place, you can be yourself, you can be silly, you can let go of that stress at home and have fun while learning how to be a good leader,” Townes expressed.

Townes said that one of the most important things is “teaching kids to take pride in their communities as well as themselves and giving back to that community.”

For more information about the Tennessee Teen Institute visit www.tnteeninstitute.net.


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