BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Change can be difficult, but it’s not impossible.
Just ask the teens and parents who have completed the Spring Green Edu-cational Foundation’s Thinking for a Change and Parent Project Diversion programs.
“We have kids who come back to see us later and they thank us,” said director Abby Schroeder. “I had one kid who returned and told me, ‘I didn’t understand it until a few months ago, but now I get what you were saying.’ Hearing it from multiple kids is a rewarding piece for us – that, yes, we do have an impact.”
Founded in 2012, the SGEF Diversion program has undergone changes of its own, including the opening of its center at 2319 Detroit Ave. in Maumee in 2019. Schroeder, who for three years served as social worker for the program, took the helm in 2021. Social workers Cassie McCurdy and Bethany Peiffer next joined the team, and the program updated its curriculum to meet the needs of teens, parents and an ever-changing society.
“We’ve grown and expanded,” said Bobbi-Jo Newman, who since 2014 has served as the program’s enforcement officer. “I’ve seen things evolve. We have moved forward more in the last two years in terms of the dynamics and atmosphere. We have younger people who help give us a new perspective.”
The 10-week program for teens focuses on how thinking controls behavior; being in touch with feelings and how they are connected to risky behavior; solving problems and setting goals. The program also educates teens on the impacts of social media, drugs and alcohol.
Referred by a court, counselor, family member or by themselves, the teens often arrive for one specific reason, but the Diversion team might find it’s the tip of the iceberg. Through initial assessments, the staff has found that teens and their families might be dealing with underlying issues including trauma, substance abuse or mental health problems.
“We work to address the whole family,” Schroeder said. That includes connecting families to services that will keep the progress moving forward even after the 10 weeks.
Through these assessments, Schroeder has found that many teens – while referred to the program for a non-drug issue – have some type of substance abuse issue, so drug intervention and prevention has been intertwined into the program.
Newman said most kids are generally aware of the types of drugs that are available, but not always the effects.
“A big one is inhalants. They don’t realize that by breathing in chemicals suddenly, the compound, if using it in a bag, could instantly cause you to have a seizure and die,” she said.
“The truth about drugs is huge here. They know about the drugs but not always the effects and what some of the consequence can be,” added Richard Bingham, a law enforcement officer who has been with the program since 2015.
Bingham also addresses the real legal consequences of felonies and misdemeanors, covering sexting, cyberbullying and tardiness, to name a few.
“Especially the kids who are about to turn 18 – they don’t realize the ramifications of sexting and how that could mean jail time,” he said. “They don’t have a clue about the seriousness of the crime.”
While these educational pieces of the program are important, the focus is on getting teens to look at how their thinking controls behaviors and how those behaviors have consequences for themselves, their family and their community. The program teaches coping skills, such as dealing with stress and setting boundaries. During the process, the Diversion participants follow the motto of “You grow through what you go through.”
“When they first show up, everyone’s got their own corner and they are not crossing the line,” chuckled moderator Bill Cox. “A few weeks later, they start talking.”
Opening up conversation happens naturally, through team-building exercises and openness from the adults in the room.
“We share little pieces of ourselves and our experiences, and that makes us more approachable. We come at it with the message that ‘We’re not here to fix you and make you do things that you don’t want to do.’ We let the kids know that we’re here to support them. Being open and honest is the best way for us to support them,” McCurdy said.
The leaders also have a motto of not making the kids do something that they wouldn’t do themselves. That’s why the group all works together on community service projects, such as working in food pantries, cleaning up trash or clearing out invasive species in the Metroparks. In the process, the teens learn about tools, teamwork and how they fit into a community, Newman said.
One graduate of the program was amazed at the impact he had while constructing bunk beds through a Let’s Build Beds program.
“He said, ‘I helped make this for a kid that doesn’t have someplace to sleep.’ This is something that he will carry with him,” Schroeder said.
“The kids often think that doing community service is something you do when you’re in trouble. We’re reframing how they look at it. It gives them a sense of the community in a positive light,” McCurdy added.
In addition to joining the teens on community projects, the leaders also make efforts to support students by showing up at their sporting or arts events – to show that they care.
“We don’t acknowledge that we know them in public, but often they’ll come up and thank us for being there,” Cox said.
That trust that’s built lasts beyond the 10 weeks, with some graduates touching base to thank the leaders or ask for support in dealing with situations that may arise.
“Even down the road, they know we’ll be there as a support. That speaks volumes about what we do,” Schroeder said.
The same goes for parents. As the teens go through the 10-week program, the adults have their own curriculum that focuses on how to provide loving support and guidance, with exercises in handling a variety of situations. Survey results show a 97-percent approval rating by parents who have gone through the program with their teens.
Anyone can enroll in the Diversion program, which has seen students from Anthony Wayne, Maumee, Springfield, Perrysburg, Toledo and even further away. The next program begins in January. The cost is $350.
For information about Diversion and other Spring Green Educational Found-ation programs – including grief support and couples workshops – visit www.springgreen.org.