We stepped foot on the Oxford College campus on Friday, June 6 to begin what would become the best two weeks of the year: the 2014 Georgia Teen Institute. Week 1 of GTI was scheduled to begin the following Monday, and a lot of preparation was necessary to make sure we were ready for participants to arrive. As soon as the moving truck backed in to unload at the dorms, we started to piece together Command Central and the many components of camp that made us feel at home. The days leading up to the start of the program are often quiet, but a closer look at the calm scene reveals hard work, frantic preparation and tireless dedication to the cause. We kicked off with Staff Development Weekend 2 (a continuation from part 1 held in March), a time for staff to bond, learn their way around campus, practice the following weeks’ activities and set personal goals for their time at GTI. Volunteers, without whom our program would not be possible, spent the weekend sorting t-shirts, assembling manuals and preparing team building materials, among many other important tasks. Excitement built as the weekend came to an end and we met for our final staff meeting to reflect on the adventures we’d get to be a part of in the coming weeks.
Our theme this year was Make It Matter, inspired by The Starfish Story by Loren Eiseley. This story reminds us that our actions can make a positive difference, even if just in the life of one other person, and that our efforts are never wasted if one person is impacted for the better. Each staff member looked forward to making a difference. In fact, it was our goal to Make It Matter for every single participant who would attend the program.
All of a sudden, it started to feel like GTI. Youth Action Teams began pouring in, we were flying through the schedule and our staff proved to be incredible leaders. In the midst of all the fun and, at times, chaos, it was nice to look around at all the change happening right before our eyes. Participants came out of their shells, bonded with each other and made memories as they were provided with tools and teachings that would support their growth into strong leaders. Teams were developing detailed Action Plans for how they will address a local community issue over the next year. Staff discovered a love for caffeine… and the youth leadership program that changes lives. For everyone at Oxford over the last two weeks, the experience was absolutely unmatched.
If you are wondering what we were up to, here are some highlights of the large group sessions of GTI 2014 (in no particular order). In upcoming blog posts, we’ll tell you more about workshops, team meetings and family group, as well.
- Wes Bender served as our keynote for the Day 1 General Session. Wes, the Director of Youth and International Initiatives with the Metro Atlanta YMCA, brought an incredible amount of energy and passion to GTI. Full of inspiration and motivation, Wes brought the crowd to life while also giving participants a meaningful message to take with them for the rest of the week.
- This was the first year we not only allowed, but encouraged, the use of mobile devices and social media at GTI. In some sessions when we were all together as a big group, everyone was given a chance to show the world that we can use social media for good. We asked participants some probing questions, like how they wanted to Make It Matter and what they’ve learned at camp, and then we asked them to tell the world. All across Twitter and Instagram, youth and adults were talking about the impact we were making. With 49 users and 66 tweets containing #GTI2014 in just 20 hours, we became a trending topic on Twitter across the United States, which held the possibility that more than 15,000 people saw our tweets.
- Several of our staff conducted a Town Hall Meeting via a Despicable Me skit. Underage drinking was described as a major issue occurring in the minions’ community, and our fabulous actors walked the audience through the Strategic Prevention Framework to determine potential causes, interventions and results. Youth Action Teams had the opportunity to understand more about the SPF PIE and how to apply it, learn how to use their Red Ribbon Week and Beyond Manuals and meet the GUIDE staff and hear about the resources we provide across the state… all with the help of Gru and his minions!
- One evening we had a Trivia Night hosted by ThinkFast Interactive. Participants worked with their Youth Action Team to answer questions against the clock and rival the other teams present. Each week, the winning team went home with $200 cash! With question topics ranging from movie plots to facts about GTI and audio clips of famous musicians to information on alcohol and drug use, it was a fun learning experience for all involved. It served as a great way to mix pop culture and prevention facts.
- The Golden Pencil Awards was held on the final night of camp each week. We announced Generation of Heroes, Lee County Youth Council and HOOKED Teen Club as our Youth Action Teams of the Year! In addition, Josselyn Garcia and Melinda Shealey were named our Volunteers of the Year. The fun didn’t stop there; we also gave out silly awards nominated by our staff, such as Golden Spoon Awards, the person “Most Likely to Survive a Shark Attack” and the person “Most Likely to Open a Snack Shack on the Beach.” A reception followed that included a visit by two ice cream trucks!
Participants also had the opportunity to participate in team building activities, as well as several fun free time activities, like swimming in Oxford’s indoor pool, arts and crafts, yoga, shopping at the TI Store and viewing Disney’s Frozen. There were also PENCILS… lots and lots of pencils. And a really cool GTI staff beach dance. Looking back, GTI 2014 was an awesome two weeks that forever impacted the lives of those who attended. All across Oxford College, every day, we were Making It Matter. Perhaps the only thing more exciting and empowering is the ripple effect that will be evident across the state of Georgia as young leaders set out to change their communities. If you came to GTI, what was your favorite part? How were you inspired? How did you Make It Matter?
Please stay tuned for our upcoming blog posts featuring other aspects of GTI! To learn more now about our program, please visit our website.