Tag Archives: youth

Coping through COVID: Reminding stressed-out youth they aren’t alone

When COVID-19 struck the United States early this year, the world as we knew it changed. Countries began tallying up their dead, borders closed, cities and businesses shut down, and more than 120,000 schools swiftly ceased in-person learning for more than 72 million K-12 and college students.

The lockdowns ended time with precious friends and family, travel, graduation ceremonies, proms, birthday parties and entertainment outings. They resulted in millions of job losses and a collectively high level of stress that hadn’t been seen in decades.

African American female with short hair wearing pearl earrings, opera length necklace with white collar showing from beneath celery green, burnt orange with black diamond shapes

Kamilah Davis-Wilson

In particular, the pandemic’s subsequent effects—uncertainty, isolation, unrest and disappearance of opportunities—are putting young people at risk for higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

“How do we expect youth to process it all?” asked Kamilah Davis-Wilson, community outreach and education manager for The Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., which provides health and mental health services to 12- to 25-year-olds and their children.

Adenike Griffin, behavioral health manager at the center, said society isn’t equipped for the after-effects of COVID and likely won’t be even after vaccines and treatment are developed.

“I don’t think we’re prepared for people’s inability to cope,” Griffin said. “There will likely be higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and more profound mental illnesses, like psychosis. The effects are going to be huge. We’re going to need to pull together as many resources as we can to create a new normal.”

African American female with short hair wearing black top and unlined jersey knit jacket

Adenike Griffin

The Ford Motor Company Fund, the auto company’s philanthropic arm, is responding by increasing its support of mental health awareness and treatment. Among its initiatives, the nonprofit is partnering with the Corner Health Center on a series of virtual discussions for 12- to 19-year-olds. Topics include social isolation; anxiety, depression and social unrest, suicidality; and grief and the holidays.

“We know mental illnesses in youth have been on the rise over the past several years, and the pandemic has given us even more reason to bring resources to this space,” said Lisa Gonzalez, a manager at the Ford Motor Company Fund. “Our team continues to look at new ways we can partner with specialists and bring forth resources free of charge to teens in this new virtual world. It is important to give our youth the tools necessary to improve their mental health in a safe setting which can hopefully translate to an open dialog between family and friends.”

In this story, we explore how COVID-19 is affecting young people in this country and provide information to help parents and guardians alleviate their distress.

Stress preceded pandemic

Even before the pandemic, the number of young people ages 10-24 who were suffering from serious mental stress, including depression and anxiety, was rapidly growing. These high rates of depression and anxiety caused suicides to climb 56% from 2007 to 2017, making it the second-leading cause of death in that age group.3 Other findings:

• About 2.3 million or 9.4% of adolescents ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode.1
• 11 million or 13.1% of 18- to 25-year-olds reported at least one major depressive episode.1
• More than 60% of college students said they felt overwhelming anxiety.2
• 56% of college students felt hopeless, and 13 percent considered suicide.2
• Among black adolescents, the rate of suicide attempts surged 73% from 1991 to 2017.3

To gauge the effects COVID-19 was having, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey from March through June and found that 1 in 4 adults ages 18-24 said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.

Uncertain and unsettled

When schools first shut down in March, many administrators said it would be for two to four weeks. That’s because no one knew how long the pandemic would last. Six months in, however, and there’s still a big question mark over the direction it’s going and how it will affect our future.

Male with salt and pepper short hair wearing glasses, dark suit with mauve shirt, striped tie and holding a microphone

David Rosenberg, MD

That question mark is adding to the latest mental health crisis, said David Rosenberg, MD, a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University.

“Do we wear a mask? What’s going to happen with flu season? Will we be shut down again? Will the vaccine be effective? The uncertainty around these kinds of prolonged, pronounced societal pressures fuels depression and anxiety, especially in the most vulnerable—our teenagers,” Rosenberg said.

Extremely/very negative impact on personal financial security due to COVID-19
Click on image to enlarge

“And the more depression and anxiety there is, the more uncertainty we feel.”

COVID-19 has also taken a toll on the financial security of young adults. About 31% of 18- to 23-year-olds surveyed reported that the virus has had an extremely negative financial impact on their lives, and 26% said they had to move back home.4

“This is one of the first generations that doesn’t feel as if they will accomplish as much or earn as much as their parents because of how the job market is right now,” Rosenberg said. “So, there’s almost the sense of ‘What’s the point?’ ”

Amanda Beck, a home-based therapist at the Inkster, Mich.-based nonprofit Starfish Family Services, said the teens she works with are usually excited about getting new clothes for school.

Female with dark hair pulled back wearing a denim collared shirt

Amanda Beck

This year was different.

“They didn’t know if they were even going to be able to go school or if their recently unemployed parents could afford to buy clothes,” Beck said.

Before the pandemic, a 12-year-old that Davis-Wilson worked with was preparing for track season, a 17-year-old was looking forward to driver’s education, and a college student was getting ready for his first internship. Then COVID-19 canceled their plans.

“Choirs, dance recitals, SATs, overnight retreats, proms—they all went away,” said Angela Burgess, a Starfish therapist. “Kids say: ‘I did what everybody told me to do. I worked hard, and now I can’t have those things.’ ”

As a result, young people are grieving and unmotivated.

African American female with dark shoulder length dreadlocks wearing black V-neck shirt and cream denim jacket

Angela Burgess

“Graduating from high school signifies the end of childhood, while going to college or getting a job signifies the beginning of adulthood,” Beck said. “If we’re not going to celebrate these things now, then when? Nobody knows. That’s stressful.”

Living in the great unknown is also leaving some teens unmotivated to learn and adding anxieties to those who already struggle with school.

Sofia, a high school freshman who asked that her last name be withheld, lives with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“School is already one of the biggest pressures for me, especially if I don’t have enough time to complete my work or get enough explanation,” said Sofia, 14.

Moving to distance learning made things more difficult. “Online school was a hard transition because we didn’t really get taught,” she said. “So, we didn’t really understand anything.”

Teachers are doing better this school year, Sofia said. But she misses her friends and doesn’t know when they will return to the classroom.

“The best thing about school is the social aspect,” she said. “But there is no school in Miami because it’s still the epicenter [of the pandemic].”

Nineteen-year-old Kayla Williams was a college freshman still adjusting to living in a dorm, going to her classes at Wayne State University in Detroit and trying to pin down her undergrad major when the pandemic struck. Suddenly, the public health major had to move back home and adjust to learning remotely.

In September, Williams returned to campus for her job. But because most students haven’t moved back, she said it doesn’t feel like the same school. She knows the number of young people getting COVID-19 has increased and worries about catching the virus.

“As an employee, they enforce a lot of extra rules, like hand-washing every half-hour,” Williams said. “But the virus is still really anxiety-producing. It makes every task stressful because there’s so much uncertainty with this disease and what’s going to happen.”

Alone and anxious

Experts say isolation before the pandemic increased the susceptibility to illness, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. Pandemic-related quarantines and shutdowns will have a bigger global mental health impact.

School doesn’t just provide teens and young adults a basic education, said Griffin of The Corner Health Center. It also keeps them connected to the teachers, coaches, peers, communities and safe spaces that have, for a long time, played important roles in their lives.

Without that connection, said Beck of Starfish Family Services, teens often feel as if no one wants them, loves them or cares for them.

Psychologists say distance learning can make it more difficult for youths who have suffered—or continue to suffer—emotional, physical or sexual abuse at home and also for those living in food-insecure households.

“There’s no escape at home,” Beck said. “School was somewhere they could go.”

At the same time, working parents are overwhelming many lonely, bored adolescents with adult responsibilities.

“They’re having them step up and help with siblings by babysitting and checking homework,” said Burgess, the Starfish therapist. “They’re also expecting teens to use self-discipline to manage their time and get their work done. But teens don’t have those skills yet.”

See the signs, seek solutions

Sofia knows suicide is avoidable. After a classmate shared graphic details of trying to kill himself, she sought out a counselor, who got him help. Still, Sofia worries about the classmates, teachers and administrators who don’t always take mental health issues seriously.

11 suicide warning signs

Suicide warning signs
Click on image to enlarge

“Kids would say: ‘Why would you try to help them? They are just doing it for attention,’ ” she said. “But if they are self-harming, they need help and attention. Not giving them help is the worst thing.”

While the increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are troubling, mental health experts say there is hope—and also help.

Recognize the signs: Young children with anxiety or depression may have more tantrums or become clingier. Older children may exhibit changes in appetite, mood, energy levels or activity.

“Listen to what they are saying and how they are feeling,” said Davis-Wilson of The Corner Health Center. “They have a lot of feelings about everything happening. Ask why they feel this way. Remember, they are children and try to work with them in a way that works for them.”

If you or someone you care about is exhibiting suicidal behavior, seek help immediately from a mental health professional, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

“When a teen is having thoughts of suicide, we can’t discount it,” Beck said. “We have got to take them seriously. Connecting them to appropriate treatment can be lifesaving.”

Sources: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services,1 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, Fall 2015 and Spring 2019,2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,3 Edward Jones and Age Wave study4


Music Matters: Here’s Why

Kurton Harrison

By Leslie D. Green 

The power to change lives

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Kurton Harrison III was a quiet child, who met most of his developmental milestones. Yet, he didn’t make eye contact and he didn’t talk. He also was sensitive to loud noises and certain sensations. Warm water caused him burning pain.

After years of taking her son to fruitless doctors’ appointments, LaJuana Harrison finally received the diagnosis. Five-year-old Kurton had Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental condition that affects behavior and communication. The doctor reported Kurton would doubtless end up in a group home.

Kurton Harrison III in the JEDI Jazz Recording Studio

Kurton Harrison III, of the Jazz Educators of Detroit Jazz Ensemble, in the recording studio.Photo by Jeff Dunn

Despite the negative prognosis, LaJuana Harrison, her husband and her mother dedicated much of the next year to painstakingly teach Kurton to speak. And although they succeeded in getting him to speak, Ms. Harrison said music is what taught her son to live.

MSU Community Music School-Detroit

Shortly after asking for a trumpet at age 7, Kurton began attending the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, where other children bullied him. When he was 12, he began attending the Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp at the MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D), an independent affiliate of Michigan State University that offers music classes and therapy.

Kurton Harrison’s hard work, his family’s perseverance and the support they received through the network of music are paying off. Harrison graduated from the Detroit School of the Arts in June and will attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music this fall on a full scholarship.

Music on the brain

Music’s impact on Kurton Harrison aligns with years of research by scientific researchers and academic experts who have found that music increases productivity, advances learning, boosts self-esteem, and helps heal bodies and minds. These are some of the reasons militaries use music to improve coordination, surgeons use it to heighten concentration, physicians use it to rehabilitate patients and parents use it to calm infants.

Neurologist Alexander Pantelyat, who studies the effects of music on the body, is the founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pantelyat explained that music — whether listened to, played or sung — activates more parts of the brain than any other physical activity. As a result, music can improve social behavior, such as eye contact, and social interaction, notably between children with autism and their parents.

Lauren Koff

Lauren Koff (left) and Cristina Rodriquez, co-founders of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc.

“People on an autism spectrum might be hypersensitive to lighting, touch and sounds,” Cristina Rodriguez, president and co-founder of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc. said. “Music is probably one of those things that doesn’t feel so intense and can bring comfort.”

Kurton Harrison agreed. “Music never hurts, even when it makes you emotional,” he said. “It can be a cure, any time, any place.”

Harrison, who also participated in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth programs, said that music also teaches diligence. “My mindset changed (because of) music,” he said. “I was in an environment where I didn’t want to fail. You have to study and you have to practice. Music is hard work.”

Banding together

Learning to sing or play an instrument in a classroom setting can also lift children, emotionally and economically, out of poverty, researchers have found.

In 2017, the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation in collaboration with the Ford Motor Company Fund held a Latin GRAMMY in the Schools program at Miami Senior High School as part of their initiative to give music students an opportunity to learn about the music industry.

Since 2014, the partnership has donated more than $360,000 in musical instruments to more than 6,000 students in U.S. cities, such as Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York and in Argentina, Mexico City and the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Miami Senior High band students performed as part of the 2017 event. The opportunity was “a big shot in the arm” for the teens, said band director Michele Fernández Denlinger. She said the kids felt like professionals playing a Latin jazz salsa under stage the lights.

Even more impactful, however, were the $20,000 in new instruments the school received as part of the event, she said.

“Our instruments had been taped and tied together,” Denlinger said. “But there are only certain things you can do with an inferior instrument.”

The data show more than 80 percent of students at Miami Senior High School live in disadvantaged communities. However, Denlinger said they can escape that through music, especially if they have the right instruments.

“Having a good instrument creates opportunities for someone who is inspired to play music,” she said.

Denlinger recalled one student who lived in the middle of Miami’s Little Havana community. “They had absolutely nothing,” Denlinger said, “But, he got full ride to play tuba at Yale.”

A sense of belonging accompanies being in a band or a choir and that feeling contributes to a child’s emotional growth and ability to succeed in every facet of life, Denlinger said.

“Imagine a teenager with all these self-esteem issues and home life issues who finds a place where they are part of something, a place where they are getting cheers, they are doing solos, and getting support,” Denlinger said. “Once you get them to feel like they are a vital part of something, like a band, it inspires them. Kids with social anxiety come out of their shells. Kids who didn’t have anyone to talk to at home find a family.”

That bond helped Denlinger’s family heal after the death of her son in 2002.

“Getting back into band (in 2006) helped me get back to me because being able to play music is intoxicating in a good way,” Denlinger said. “Music healed my whole family.”

Violinist Anita Dumar found kinship with the Sphinx Organization, where she volunteers while attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Sphinx Organization is a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps find, develop and promote young classical string players of Black and Latinix heritage. Working to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in classical music, the Sphinx Organization has received support from organizations that include the Ford Fund.

“Sphinx provides a community of people who look like you and are talking about issues in your field,” Dumar said.

The Sphinx society also gave Dumar a goal.

“As a young person, I saw what was going on in the world and thought, ‘I’m just sitting in my room practicing, what good am I doing?'” Dumar said. “But Sphinx shows that what I do affects what happens with underrepresented musicians. Music gave me a purpose that fit me. Losing music would be like losing a part of myself.”

Notes of hope

Richard White was literally lost.

“Every day was about finding food and trying to find my mom,” White said.

Dr. Richard White with tuba at dusk from documentary film, R.A.W.

Dr. Richard Antoine White during production of the documentary film, R.A.W. Photo by John Waire

Born prematurely to a mom who suffered from alcoholism, White started his life homeless on the streets of Baltimore.

During a snow storm one night, a 4-year-old White crawled into an entryway to stay warm. Miraculously, a stranger found him and contacted his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain. They took White in; but, he wouldn’t speak to the McClains beyond saying the basics like, “Thank you, yes, no, please, hello and goodbye.”

Still, the McClains were supportive. They gave White a trumpet when he was in fourth grade and then threatened to take it away if he didn’t improve his grades.

“I never got a failing grade again,” White said. “The trumpet gave me a voice, it belonged to me.”

Musicians process music as another language, scientists have discovered. In addition, experts have found that knowing multiple languages makes learning subsequent languages easier. The ties between music and language help explain how Kurton Harrison can play multiple instruments and why it was easy for Richard White to not only play the trumpet, but to switch to the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family.

Music opened doors for Richard White. When he showed up at the Baltimore School of the Arts and requested an audition – one day after auditions ended – administrators saw the 15-year-old’s passion and gave him a chance anyway.

One hard-fought opportunity turned into another. Eventually, White earned a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Today, White is an associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico. He also is principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and founding member and principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Music became the thing that made the impossible possible,” White said. “I went from surviving to living. Without it, I would have stayed lost.”

Music Helps Us Learn by

    • creating a desired atmosphere
    • building a sense of anticipation
    • energizing learning activities
    • changing brain wave states
    • focusing concentration
    • increasing attention
    • improving memory
    • facilitating a multisensory learning experience
    • releasing tension
    • enhancing imagination
    • aligning groups
    • developing rapport
    • providing inspiration and motivation
    • adding an element of fun

Source: LifeSounds Educational Services

This story was originally published on fordfund.org. The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

Read more about Kurton Harrison and Richard White.

Teen Driving Fatalities Spurs a Community and Partners to Action

It was Sept. 30 when Lisa Scott, a mother of three, was watching the 10 o’clock news and saw the breaking news alert: A 16-year-old boy lost control of his speeding vehicle and struck a tree, killing himself and his two 15-year-old passengers. The driver had his license for a week. To make matters worse, it was the second teen car crash in the county in six months.

Scott, who couldn’t help but think of her oldest son, Drew, also a new driver, calls the news “terrifying,” adding, “You are sending your most precious cargo off in that vehicle.”

The teens in the September crash were from Pekin, a town of about 30,000 people and the county seat of Tazewell, which boasts upwards of 135,000 people on 650-square miles of mostly farmland in central Illinois. Although the kids weren’t from the Scott’s Tremont, Ill. village, a rural area with about 2,100 residents and a grain elevator as its tallest landmark; she says the kids were part of their broader community.

Jeff Lower agrees. “It doesn’t matter where you go, somebody knows some of these teens who were dying,” says the Pekin resident and chief deputy of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. “My own kids went to high school with four of the kids.”

Scott told her son what happened, fully aware he—like most teens—thought he was invincible.

What no one knew, though, was that in the 15 months from March 2005 to July 2006, Tazewell County and the surrounding communities would mourn the loss of 15 teenagers who died in crashes caused by everything from speeding, alcohol and drugs to inexperience, fatigue and poor lighting.

A month later, in October, a motorcycle crash on a dark rural road killed two boys. Three months later, alcohol and excessive speeds contributed to the deaths of two Tremont teens.

“I was at home watching TV, and we started getting phone calls about the situation,” explains Jeff Hinman, superintendent of the Tremont School District.

Jeff Hinman, Tremont School District superintendent. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Jeff Hinman, Tremont School District superintendent. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Hinman didn’t have time to dwell on his grief. The number of teens dying on local roads was escalating, and the community was reeling. Before classes resumed, the then-high school principal needed to assemble a team to help the school’s 300 students, teachers and other staff members process their own confusion and sorrow.

“We mobilized local clergy and counselors at other schools just to provide space for kids to talk with if they need to,” Hinman says. “And then we had to make them available to attend the visitations and funerals.”

Although the tragic crashes transpired 11 years ago, like other Tazewell County residents, Drew Scott recalls where he was when he heard about his Tremont schoolmates.

“I was at church when it happened,” he says, adding he knew the boys casually. “I remember walking into school the next day, and it was silent. Every hallway was silent. They had grief counselors for us, and we spent the day sitting around and talking and connecting with people.”

His family attended both visitations, but Lisa Scott says her fear of losing her own son made acknowledging the families’ losses difficult.

Law enforcement did. There came a point when the Tazewell County sheriff’s deputies began to dread radio dispatches about a crash with unknown injuries.What’s more, despite the eight fatalities in less than a year, Drew Scott says kids didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening. “I think a lot of what we felt initially was that what was happening was sort of unavoidable. We, as high school kids and new drivers, didn’t realize this was unusual.”

“We all would think, ‘Oh no, is this another teenager?’ remembers Deputy Sheriff John Shallenberger.

Soon, the officers began asking what was next. “There was no pattern to it,” says Shallenberger, a Pekin resident.

Not knowing why there were so many fatalities added to the devastation.

“It wasn’t like we could say they were all speeding or they were all doing something wrong,” Lower says. “There were different reasons. There was speeding and some alcohol and drugs, sure; but one ran a stop sign. Some were just inexperienced; one cause was fatigue. We had one run into a piece of farm equipment. There were all kinds of reasons. It made me worry much more about my own children.”

Getting the life-altering call

When his mom and pop, Michelle and Gary Watson, traveled to Missouri for a family member’s funeral, Jeremy Watson did what many adventurous teenagers do when their parents are away: He invited friends over for a party. Why not? Not only was the house free from parents but also his 21-year-old brother, Josh, was at charity event for the evening.

Jeremy (left) on graduation day from Midwest Central High School in Manito, Ill., with older brother, Josh "Goose" Watson

Jeremy (left) with older brother, Josh “Goose” Watson

Jeremy Watson during a fishing trip with his dad, Gary Watson

Jeremy Watson during a fishing trip with his dad, Gary Watson

Jeremy Watson and his girlfriend Lacey Shelabarger on high school graduation day in 2006

Jeremy Watson and his girlfriend Lacey Shelabarger on high school graduation day in 2006








A recent high school graduate, Jeremy and his girlfriend, Lacey, had big plans.  They would live in the country and have a bunch of kids.  Lacey wanted a horse; and though Jeremy had a good job working at his dad’s construction company, he’d didn’t yet have the money to buy it for her. So, before the party on June 17, he diligently bailed hay for a local farmer to work off the cost.

Michelle Watson

Michelle Watson

The next morning, as the 18-year-old’s parents made their way back home, Michelle Watson’s cellphone rang.

“Our soon-to-be daughter-in-law called and asked us where we were,” explains Watson, who adds they had just stopped to grab a bite to eat. “She told us to skip lunch and come home. I asked what was going on and she hung up. I called back.”

Though Josh didn’t want them to learn while they were on the road that Jeremy was dead, Watson pried out the details.

“My heart went to my throat. Numbness. You just don’t believe what you just heard.” After that, she says there was a lot of tears and a lot of screaming.

Michelle Watson recites the story plainly though not matter-of-factly at schools and at the request of parents at their wit’s end. She says the events unfolded like this: Apparently, Josh arrived at their Topeka, Ill., home (located just outside of Tazewell) after his charity event and shut down Jeremy’s party, taking car keys from teenagers too impaired to drive. Then Jeremy and two boys—who had just gotten off work and hadn’t been drinking at the party—wanted to grab a bite. Since Jeremy, who had had a few beers, wasn’t going to be driving, Josh said no problem.

Information from detectives, the coroner and sheriff’s deputies reveals the remaining details: After leaving Steak ‘N Shake, the boys went to Walmart where Jeremy’s friends purchased a can of air dust, used mostly to clean computer keyboards. Because purchasers must be 18, the story clerk properly requested ID.

Then, Watson explains, “The driver sent a mass text message to other kids saying ‘huffing.’” Huffing is one term for inhaling chemical vapors to get high.

It wasn’t long afterward that the driver passed out and the vehicle, which was now on a Tazewell County road, zoomed more than 1,700 feet, overturned, caught fire and killed all three 18-year-olds. It was a Sunday morning. Father’s Day. Four weeks after the teens graduated high school.

Months later, Watson learned that in the 12 hours before getting behind the wheel, the driver and other passenger had also snorted an eight-ball of cocaine and smoked five joints. “We didn’t get to see them because they were burnt so badly. They had to be identified by DNA and dental records.”

Before getting the call that changed her life, Watson says her heart went out to the parents whose children died in the previous wrecks. She knew then: “A parent should never have to bury their child.”

After burying their youngest son, the Watsons sold their house, moved to Manito, Ill., and stopped celebrating Mother’s and Father’s Day. Gary Watson has only recently begun hunting and fishing again.

Adds Michelle Watson, “For two years, we didn’t do Christmas and didn’t do Thanksgiving. Your whole world falls apart.”

Steel crosses, made by Gary Watson, mark the location on Towerline Road in Tazewell County, Ill., where Jacob "Jake" Barding, 18; Jeremy "Hoss" Watson, son of Gary, 18; and John "Big John" Stadsholt, 18, died in a car crash. Friends spray-painted “We miss you. We’ll never forget. RIP boys” on the concrete culvert. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Steel crosses, made by Gary Watson, mark the location on Towerline Road in Tazewell County, Ill., where Jacob “Jake” Barding, 18; Jeremy “Hoss” Watson, son of Gary, 18; and John “Big John” Stadsholt, 18, died in a car crash. Friends spray-painted “We miss you. We’ll never forget. RIP boys” on the concrete culvert. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Coming together for change

Everybody wanted to do something, but nobody knew what to do, says Chief Deputy Lower. “It just seemed like there was no end.”

Everyone from the Sheriff’s department and Health Department to teens, parents and business leaders began working toward solutions. Deputy Shallenberger says deputies started running ideas by students on the County Youth Board. “They helped us create videos talking about what they went through.”

Students prepare to participate in a safe driving demonstration. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Students prepare to participate in a safe driving demonstration. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Tazewell County Deputy Sheriff John Shallenberger helped develop the county’s Decision Driving program Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Tazewell County Deputy Sheriff John Shallenberger helped develop the county’s Decision Driving program Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Lisa Scott (right) hopes her youngest child, Mary, (left) understands the importance of driving safely. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Lisa Scott (right) hopes her youngest child, Mary, (left) understands the importance of driving safely. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen



Youth Board member Drew Scott said the group was addressing issues of youth drug prevention and sex, but made drunk driving prevention and seatbelt use another priority.

The community soon established the four-part Tazewell Teen Initiative, a multifaceted intergovernmental group made up of Enforcement, Engineering, Emergency and Education subcommittees.

Enforcement was a partnership between the Sheriff’s office, Illinois State Police, County Coroner and local law enforcement.

“We started giving kids safety citations—like a prepaid gas card or something like it—when they did well,” Shallenberger says. “Students who maintained good grades and didn’t get a ticket during the year would get entered into a drawing to win a car.”

The Engineering subcommittee reviewed various roadways to identify and improve the most dangerous intersections and installed better signage, including the bright arrows called chevrons, signaling to drivers that a potentially dangerous curve is coming. Emergency Services (EMTs and fire personnel) united to find solutions. And the Education subcommittee, comprised of teens, the Health Department, Illinois Department of Transportation (IDot), the American Red Cross and others, created billboards and radio and television commercials.

Mike Stout, then director of the Division of Traffic Safety for IDot and a Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) representative, says county and city, town law enforcement, state police, school superintendents, high school representatives, businesses and municipalities all gathered to discuss the issues.

At the same time, a state task force was discussing the lack of restrictions on new teenage drivers. Informing them about the tragedies in Tazewell County helped push them toward adopting graduated driver’s licenses, explains Stout, who’s now retired.

Then, the state’s Secretary of Transportation told Stout about Ford Driving Skills for Life, a free program Ford Motor Company Fund, the GHSA and safety experts founded in 2003 to help teens gain safe driving skills beyond what’s taught in most driver education programs.

Ford DSFL proposed a challenge where each of the seven high schools would develop their own teen safe driving programs, and then present those programs for judging a few months later, says Jim Graham, global manager for Ford DSFL.Ford challenges students to do better

In 2007, each school received a $3,000 budget toward its programs. At the end, they could win $5,000 toward a school party and savings bonds.

Schools held safety days that included a poster contest and yielded slogans like “A Click Every Time Keeps the Cops Off Your Behind.”

Scott says Tremont High School started with seatbelt use. “We just hid and, as covertly as we could, watched to see how many students came in and went out with seatbelts,” says Scott. “We would do announcements on the intercom about how well we did.”

Graham and Stout remember Dee Mack High School in Mackinaw, Ill., covering the town with signs, and messages related to safe driving.

“We did the program and then all the schools got to come to the ride-and-drive event, which we’re doing the 10th anniversary on,” Shallenberger says. “It was neat to see how they worked together.”

Superintendent Hinman says on top of the news stories surrounding the crashes, having Ford DSFL come into the community created an awareness. “It made people think ‘Oh, my gosh. This is really important.’”

More important than the competition, Graham says, was the hands-on driving clinic program that followed. DSFL selected students, faculty, driver’s education teachers and others from each school and set up a small course at Pekin airport. The program put participants through real-world driver training with professional drivers from all over the United States.

“A lot of the crashes happened because they were speeding or because of lack of skills,” Graham says. “We focused on providing advance driving skills and on changing their mindset about driving. Making sure they don’t speed, don’t drink and drive, that they buckle up. We taught them about spacing between vehicles and potential hazards, about what to do when there’s something in front of you, about impaired driving. Our hope was they would learn some things and take it back to the schools and then that information would cascade to the kids who didn’t get to go.”

Hinman recollects the simulation where kids would put on goggles and drive golf carts. “That was an eye-opening experience for them because they were able to experience what impaired driving felt like. It hit home because they could compare it to what it was like when you were not impaired.”

Drew Scott in 2007 during the first Driving Skills for Life class (left) and him now. Scott is currently an elementary school teacher. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Drew Scott in 2007 during the first Driving Skills for Life class (left) and him now. Scott is currently an elementary school teacher. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

The professional drivers showed Drew Scott what to do if his car went into a skid. His mom, Lisa Scott, gained an appreciation for how kids watch their parents and absorb driving habits from them. She also realized it takes more than parents to teach good driving skills and that most schools don’t have the resources to teach kids what they need to know. “When we tell our kids stuff, they don’t really listen. But when a professional driver is putting the car in a skid and getting it out, they listen.

“That tragedy was terrifying,” Scott adds. “We as a community, as parents and as a student body took the resources Ford had to offer and worked with the kids closely to reduce teen deaths.”

Indeed, after the County united and the DSFL program started, Shallenberger says the community went five years without one teen fatality. He says the program even went statewide, to 105 high schools.

Graham says the eight-year statewide program, called Operation Teen Safe Driving, was a partnership between Ford DSFL, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Allstate Insurance. “Each school got a financial stipend for them to do things in their school and in their community to get the word out about teen safe driving, just like in Tazewell County,” he says.

In all, Graham estimates Operation Teen Safe Driving, which received national awards, trained more than 300,000 students, parents and community and business leaders.

“At the end of those eight years, teen deaths in Illinois declined 50 percent. That’s huge,” Graham says. “Graduated driver’s licenses helped. Everybody working together helped. That’s a big deal.”

Shallenberger and Deputy Chuck Linton—who helped develop the Tazewell County’s Decision Driving program and promote Operation Teen Safe Driving—along with deputies Jeff Rogers and Rich Brock, continued educating teens even after the program ended.

Even Michelle Watson began educating students and parents about the dangers of impaired driving. “I jumped in the following year (2007) and started speaking at the schools when the Red Cross started doing these mock prom crashes,” she says.

She adds, “If I can save one parent, I’ve done my job.”She tells students: “My son, Jeremy, had a job, a girlfriend, a four-wheeler. He had a dog. He had a life. Don’t make your mom have to pick out your casket. Make your choices wisely. If you get into trouble, call your parents. Yeah, they are going to be upset, but at least you’ll be alive.”


Nonprofits build empathy, reduce trauma among bullied youth

Children Picking on Child in Classroom

Ray Washington needed an escape.

His mother worked three jobs to provide for him and his three siblings; so, he spent considerable time with his grandmother and cousins. Yet, some young family members found entertainment in taunting him.

They called Ray fat and spread rumors that he was gay. They even said that because of this, his father, who didn’t contribute to the family, didn’t love him. He retreated.

“I stayed more to myself as a child,” says Washington, a recent graduate of Ripley High School in Ripley, Tenn.

In middle school, he began opening up, joining clubs and playing football. But he found things got worse. The name calling and rumors had spread to his school. And Washington was getting into fights because he didn’t know how else to combat the provocations.

But, classmates weren’t the only ones who bullied Washington. Some teachers told him he would never amount to anything and that he wasn’t good enough to participate in the clubs he joined.

“Racism is a big issue where I am from. The teachers stereotype. They think black kids are not able to be successful,” says Washington, who was a West Tennessee Senior Level Rep for his high school at the Tennessee Association of Student Councils. He plans to study criminal justice with a concentration on courts and law at the University of Tennessee at Martin this fall.

Distressed there was no safe place for him, Washington cried himself to sleep at night and in eighth grade began cutting his arms. At school, he wore long sleeves or led people to believe the wounds were the result of football. By eighth grade, he was suicidal.

This story is published in full at FordBetterWorld.org, which is supported by the Ford Motor Company Fund to create a deeper understanding of the people and communities we serve. Read the full story here.

Nonprofits at work

News page at fordbetterworld.org

The United States boasts nearly 1.6 million nonprofits, including civics leagues, chambers of commerce, public charities and private foundations.

My client, the Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services is among those organizations. In addition to supporting other nonprofits, education and communities around the globe, Ford Fund is sharing stories about essential issues through its website, FordFund.org.

As writer and editor at large, I have come upon a multitude of nonprofits supporting children, veterans, and tackling poverty in impoverished communities. Many are working to end homelessness and illiteracy and providing disaster relief as well. Some of what’s happening is powerfully sad. But so much more is inspiring beyond measure. I learned about a community in which 15 teens died in 15 months, how a grieving mother decided to change the scenario and how Ford Fund stepped up to help

I also discovered how:

  • Gino Tubaro uses his love of invention to develop 3d-manufactured prosthetics for children in need;
  • Alvin Ailey, 826, Mosaic Youth Theatre and others are supporting the needs of children through creative programming;
  • the Center for Native American Youth is empowering students in neglected communities;
  • triple-amputees use their disabilities to inspire others;
  • basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabaar slam dunks racism;
  • social entrepreneurs are acquiring capital to make change;
  • Smashwords founder Mark Coker discovered his calling; and
  • college students created jobs for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

Read about issues that matter: Visit FordFund.org today.

If you have a story you think we should share, let me know in the comment area below.