YSS and the NE-IA Kiwanis Division 11 this week are transforming the Boone County Fairground Community Building, 1601 Industrial Park Road, into their ninth annual Teen Maze.
Gerri Bugg, community, youth, and family development director at YSS, said that they wanted to create this event to teach seventh-grade students about the negative and positive impacts their choices can have in their lives.
She said they don’t get a lot of negative feedback on the topics they cover, but it does happen on occasion, particularly when they talk about sexual health and education. She said sometimes they change some of what they talk about for different schools if needed.
“One teacher once said, ‘it’s age appropriate, and I wish it wasn’t,’” Bugg said.
She said when the students are done with the maze, she wants them to go home and share with their parents and others what they learned from it to continue the conversation.
This year, 15 schools will attend the event bringing roughly 1,200 students to participate.
When the event first started in 2009, Bugg said they had 14 stations that each group would spend eight minutes at. They quickly decided that was not enough time for the students to be at each station, and they changed it to 12 sections with the students spending 10 minutes at each.
The students learn about sexual health and safety and being able to resist peer pressure in one of the stations, called the relationship room.
On arrival in another station, called parentland, one student was chosen to wear a pregnancy belly for the rest of the maze while another had to always carry a baby carrier with them. The room was also set up with safety hazards for babies that the students had to identify.
When the students made it to the party room, a police officer came in and some of the students were charged with underage drinking or drug use. The officer handed them goggles to simulate being intoxicated and made them do sobriety tests. They were given tickets, and the group then went to the juvenile court room.
Some students had to do community service projects, like cleaning toilets or picking up trash, while one student had to stand in a jail cell they had set up, and the group learned about the consequences that could come from each action.
There were also sessions about bullying, speed interviewing for jobs, social media safety, financial literacy, body image and self care.
In the mental health room, they learned about the three most common mental illnesses that students their age are experiencing, which are anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
When the group learned about tobacco use, they spent time learning about the chemicals in cigarettes that can cause damage, and they talked about the harmful effects that vaping can cause. They were able to see the difference between healthy lungs and lungs with cancer, and at the end, they did an exercise where they ran in place and tried to breathe through a straw to see what smoking could do to their breathing ability.
Amy Kennel, youth employment specialist for YSS, helped plan the event this year after volunteering for the first time the previous year. This year, her group helped set up the financial literacy, youth employment, social media and the self-care sessions.
“I fell in love with it last year, and I love doing it, so now I’m in for the whole thing,” Kennel said.
This year, Bugg said that they were awarded the NE-IA Kiwanis district signature project award for the event, which began Monday and continues through Friday.
“What amazes me about this event is that the schools bought into it right away, and they’ve stuck with it. They like it,” Bugg said. “We get great feedback from the teachers and the staff and the kids. They really feel like it will change their behavior.”
One year, they heard one of the students used what she learned in the suicide prevention section to help one of her friends. For Bugg, that is why the event is important for them to have every year.
“What she learned in that 10 minutes, (she) was able to use with a friend,” Bugg said. “Even if it only touches one of those 1,200 kids, it makes a life different.”