Nick Cash keeps the index cards, hundreds of them, in small plastic baskets in his office. The cards are in separate stacks held together by rubber bands. The information on them is significant.
“They tell us what problems our kids are dealing with,” Cash said.
There are many.
Cash, 31, is executive director of Teen Advisors which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. On the index cards are questions students write to Teen Advisors seeking help with their problems.
Those include stress, lack of self-worth and loneliness, as well as peer pressure to indulge in drugs, alcohol and sex.
Teen Advisors was founded here in 1987 by Richard Stephens and his wife Dee Dee Stephens, The first teens involved were Pacelli students but many area schools are represented now.
Teen Advisors are high school sophomores, juniors and seniors who sign a contract pledging to abstain from drugs, alcohol and sexual activities and to be positive role models in their schools and in the community. The students also agree to turn themselves in if they break their word and to confront others who may have broken theirs.
Student-led interactive presentations with groups of Teen Advisors going into classes and talking with high school freshmen are an attempt to help students make wise decisions and live a life of integrity. It is believed teens are likely to listen to their peers.
In 2002, the Velocity program was started. It features seventh and eighth grade students talking with sixth graders.
The two groups combined have more than 400 participants who talk to more than 6,000 students each year.
Cash, who joined teen advisors when he was a sophomore at Hardaway High School, said that while the values are faith based, no mention of religion is ever made at school.
Topics that Teen Advisors discuss include how to deal with peer pressure, how to choose quality friends and how to deal with low self esteem.
“We depend totally on donations,” Cash said of the non-profit organization. “Last year, we had 414 unique donors. These people recognize the effectiveness of the program.”
Its budget for this year is $472,000, according to Cash. Funding from United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley and a grant from the Columbus Office of Crime Prevention help.
Jalen Lacy is a senior at Northside High School. He is going to play quarterback for the Air Force Academy next fall.
“I have been able to help others grow and being in Teen Advisors has helped me to grow, as well,” Jalen said.
He had problems as a freshman. “There was a lot of peer pressure, a lot of decisions to make. I could easily have gone the wrong way,” Jalen said.
He said he discovered one can have fun in a positive way without sex, drugs and alcohol.
“You don’t hear successful people say, ‘I’m so glad I did drugs.’ You just don’t. That’s not the way God wants us to live,” Jalen said.
It is certainly no surprise that Maggie Kelley, a Hardaway High School junior, is a teen advisor. “I have been hearing about it since I was a baby,” Maggie said, laughing. Her mother was one of the first Teen Advisors.
It was Maggie’s choice to join.
“We don’t preach to students. We’re not saying, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’ We get on a personal level with the students and listen to their problems. Sometimes, I can say that I was in the same situation and this is what I did or I can tell them that this is how I would handle the same problem,” Maggie said.
She said many students suffer from stress. “Sometimes it is because of school, sometimes it has to do with family,” she said.
Leah Carr, 28, is Velocity director. She was a Teen Advisor at Columbus High.
She said teens are very vulnerable and “they are all searching to find out who they are.”
Carr said many students will not talk during a session but will approach a Teen Advisor at a later time. Some may joke during a presentation but Carr and Cash both said the laughter can be a “defense mechanism.” Though it may appear students are not listening, Carr said they hear everything and soak it in “like a sponge.”
Cash said teachers are glad to have Teen Advisors grab class time.
“If a girl has had sex and is worrying about getting pregnant. she is not going to do good school work. If a student has just started smoking pot, they’re not going to be concentrating on their studies,” Cash said.
Teen Advisors shares material with different youth organizations across the country.
Cash has been executive director for four years but is leaving Columbus in June with his wife Dianna and their children to do mission work in Africa. “I heard the calling,” he said.
He will miss Teen Advisors.
Cash said, “I have been involved with this half of my life.”