Decisions and Consequences Lurk Behind Every Corner in Teen Maze

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BY BILL VALLADARES

Hundreds of teens from Turner County recently got a first-hand look at how the choices they make now have irreversible effects on their lives, and the lives of their friends and families.

They participated in the second annual Teen Maze, a life-size, interactive life maze set up in the Civic Center in Ashburn, where life-altering decisions and consequences lurk behind every corner. All the challenges students face as they navigate through the Teen Maze are randomly drawn. The decisions students draw determine their direction. Good choices let them pass by stations that would delay their arrival at the end of the Maze while poor choices can slow them down with the consequences they have been assigned.

The aim of the Maze is to challenge teens to graduate and obtain a career without getting caught by pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases along the way. In the Maze students do not have choices, but have to do whatever the script tells them. The guide book reminds participants to remember that “this is a game, but in real life, the choices you make affect your life. GOOD LUCK!” Last year’s Teen Maze was so successful with high-school students that this year it was open to middle-school students as well.

“We have a high poverty rate, a high drop-out rate and a high teen pregnancy rate here,” said Turner County Connection coordinator Lisa H. Kingry, who also served as event coordinator. “I used to say that the kids living in low-income homes with very few outside resources and little family support were our kids in crisis—and they are. But I believe that in today’s world with the negative influences that surround them, all our kids are in crisis. Teen-pregnancy and underage drinking are no respecter of persons.”

A teen learns one of the consequences for engaging in sexual behavior.

As participants entered the maze, they were met by actors, actresses and facilitators who guided them through mock situations with props and visual aids. Students got to experience the potential consequences of engaging in sexual behavior and got to live out vividly demonstrated negative outcomes in a safe, interactive environment.

Those whose choices led them to engage in sexual behavior experienced consequences that postponed or even eliminated graduation, which was at the end of the Maze—the place they were all trying to get to. These consequences included pregnancy, disease, hospitalization, parenthood, and sometimes even death. Students who decided to avoid engaging in sexual behavior were able to graduate from high-school, complete with cap and gown, cake, “Pomp & Circumstance’, and mandatory cheering from all Maze participants.

“Our students have so many challenges today, and after hearing about the Teen Maze I had to see it for myself,” said Wanda Barrs, chair of Georgia’s State Board of Education, who got to experience the Teen Maze first-hand by going through it herself. “I would advocate for others to consider the Teen Maze for their own schools. It’s realistic, yet it’s a nonthreatening process that reminds young people they have choices that will impact their lives and the lives of the people they care about.”

According to Kingry, the school counselors who conducted interviews as students emerged from the Maze greatly impacted the teens. “That was important because we know that many of our students are going through, or have experienced, very similar situations,” she said. “The maze scenarios are true to life, so it’s essential for the students to talk through their choices and to know that others care. We don’t do this event to make students feel bad about choices they’ve already made, or the situations they’re presently in. We do this to help our youth experience a successful, full life. As I told a young lady who was not fond of participating, we do this because we care. I think the reason she was struggling with the event is because she lives the life of some of the scenarios and the Teen Maze brought it too close to home for her.”

The Turner County coroner removes a body from the crash site.

Two other areas that deeply influenced the students were the underage drinking area and a car-crash simulation. “One student went to see the county coroner later in the day to thank him for participating in the crash simulation,” said Kingry. “She told the coroner it made a tremendous impact on her life and her future decisions.”

Kingry credits the success of the Teen Maze to collaboration. “There is no way this event could take place without total cooperation and commitment from the community and school,” she said. “Turner County Connection already has strong partnerships with many local organizations, so this was not a problem. After the success of last year’s event, it was very easy to get their commitment this year.”

The Sheriff’s Department coordinated the underage drinking section and the police department set up the crash simulation. Students and staff from Moultrie Technical College-Turner Campus volunteered at the stations, while other partners donated time and money.

Event coordinators Robin Rainey (left) and Lisa H. Kingry (far right) escort Georgia’s State Board of Education Chair Wanda Barrs and Turner County Superintendent of Schools Ray Jordan through the Teen Maze.

Wellness coordinator Robin Rainey the other Teen Maze coordinator, contacted Phoebe-Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Ga. about donating items for the pregnancy/birthing stations. They were so interested that in exchange for training them to coordinate a Teen Maze event in their community, they purchased 1,000 T-shirts for the Turner County event.

“I would not attempt to have the Teen Maze without 100-percent support of our school superintendent and community volunteers,” said Kingry. “We had both, but this year we also had a different level of support—our school teachers. One middle-school teacher told me this is the best thing we’ve done for our students and that the teachers need to know what they can do in the classroom to help prepare for future events.”

“This is the ultimate example of a collaborative effort to support student choices and outcomes in education,” said Barrs. “It’s not enough to tell these young people. We need to show what life will be like based on the choices they make.”

Georgia Family Connection Partnership community facilitator Marion Jay Curry agrees. “For 10 years I’ve observed this collaborative consistently work to identify and implement best practices that address their two greatest areas of concern—reducing teen pregnancy and improving the high-school graduation rate,” she said. “Lisa Kingry is an innovative leader who knows how to support the collaborative to get the work done. Every effort is a team effort that collaborative partners own and support. The Teen Maze is yet another focused innovation by the collaborative partners in Turner County.”

Kingry does, however, struggle to get parental involvement. “Parents have not been as involved as we had hoped they would be,” she said. “We had a parent preview night before the event, with only 25 parents attending. As a result, though, two parents volunteered to come back the following day and help with the maze.”

Teen Mazes are a new and innovate way for teenagers to learn about the consequences of the choices they make during high school and beyond. They have been held across Arizona during the past 10 years, with some of the most elaborate mazes in Verde Valley and the Phoenix-Maryvale area. The mazes are typically created through local inter-agency collaboration. The Arizona Department of Health Services recognizes the Teen Maze format as a recommended practice for pregnancy prevention among teenagers.

Friends celebrate successfully navigating the Teen Maze before the graduation ceremony.

Kingry and Rainey are anxious to share the success of the Teen Maze and would like to see communities across the state coordinate their own mazes. More than 50 visitors participated during the two-day event, and Communities In Schools of Ben-Hill County and Dodge Connection already replicated the event.

“It was great to have our State School Board chair attend the event and participate,” said Kingry. “It’s always important for someone from the state level to see the grassroots efforts of individual counties and be able to share with others the work of local collaboratives.”

To learn more about the Teen Maze, contact Lisa Kingry at [email protected], or at 229-567-9066.