“No dream is too crazy.”
“Keep your head up high.”
“Never be afraid to follow your dreams.”
The messages of encouragement were scrawled on bobbing, swaying balloons corralled into a giant net. Teens in attendance at the fourth annual Above the Influence (ATI) – Kent County Youth Summit, held at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, had written down their thoughts and dreams, along with concerns such as depression, bullying, and body shaming. Social media mastermind Rob Bliss devised the “Brainstorm Cloud Project” exercise as a way to allow the 1,300 gathered students from Kent and surrounding counties to open up and share their true thoughts and feelings.
“Share something real,” he instructed.
The entire summit was designed with one purpose in mind for attendees: learn, share and perfect new ways to live above the influence of negative people, substances, choices, and behaviors. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan sponsored a “Let’s Dance” workshop and flash mob finale.
The day also included breakout sessions on topics such as Driving While in TEXTicated; The Bold, The Bullied, The Brave: Teens Empowering Teens; Life Without You: Why YOU Matter; I Heard It’s Medicine: Myths and Truths About Marijuana; and separate sessions designed just for young women and young men. There was also a dance party to cap off the day, followed by a flash mob dance, which broke out as the students’ balloons were released.
Yasmeen Cottle is an 11-year-old who attends New Branches Charter Academy in Grand Rapids. She said the “Life Without You” session really made her think about how people often struggle in silence. She said it hopefully sent a message to other attendees that we all need to look out for one another, instead of tearing each other down over differences.
“I hadn’t really thought about how many people might be insecure,” she said. “They put a façade over why they’re really hurting inside.”
Kelly Veenstra, 18, and Israel Romo, 20, attended the Youth Summit when they were in high school and came back as veterans of the event’s “Dream Team”.
Romo said he was struggling with life choices before he went to the event as a teen.
“Since then, I’ve been making better choices for myself,” he said.
Veenstra comes back because she believes in the positive message the day delivers to area youth. She said teens hear so many negative things from their peers and even from themselves with negative self-talk that the day is a way to focus on the good.
“We are more than what people see,” she said.
How do you encourage your teens and tweens to live above the influence? Share with us in the comments.
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Photo credit: Julie Bitely