Teens navigate through barriers to graduation during Youth Futures Authority Teen Maze

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Rocquis Martin, a DeRenne Middle School eighth-grader, poses with “Little Rocky” at his mock high school graduation after learning the harsh realities of teen pregnancy during the Teen Maze event Thursday.

Sirens blared, emergency lights flashed and wide-eyed eighth-graders surveyed the carnage from a simulated wreck involving a teen driver who took his eyes off the road to send a text message.

Emergency crews ushered them into the Savannah National Guard Armory gym and their giggling and snickering stopped. A Memorial University Medical Center doctor was trying desperately to save the driver’s life during a mock emergency room surgery. All smirks melted to looks of concern as nurses covered the patient’s body in a stark white sheet and wheeled him out to a shiny black hearse.

It was an eye opening start to the Youth Futures Authority Teen Maze — a room filled with public health, Juvenile Court and education officials acting out how they would treat each student caught up in a variety of hypothetical life situations.

“It is important that we remove any barriers that might prevent our students from graduating from high school,” said Savannah-Chatham Public Schools Per Pupil Personnel Director Quentina Miller-Fields. “This exposes them to the many poor choices out there that might prevent them from reaching their goals.”

The maze led students through startling twists and turns based on the decisions they made. Students saw first hand how one bad choice could send their lives spiraling out of control. The Teen Maze was open to public and private school eighth-graders and their parents throughout the week. About 1,300 people participated.

True to life, the majority of the participants got to don caps and gowns and listen to officials, like City Councilman Van Johnson, deliver a high school commencement speech.

“I got into a little trouble, but I made it,” DeRenne Middle schooler Ivonna Habersham said as she zipped up her graduation robe. “It’s so frustrating because you go through that maze and you just don’t know what’s going to happen to you next.”

Along the way far too many of the young participants stood before Chatham County Superior Court Judge James Bass to be sentenced to pretend probation or time in simulated youth detention. They were handcuffed, finger printed and booked by tough as nails sheriff’s deputies.

“I learned that if you go to jail they’re not going to treat you like your parents would,” said Nicholas Grant an eighth-grade Savannah Youth Council representative from Notre Dame Academy.

Some went through the maze as teen parents lugging life-like baby dolls.

Southwest Middle eighth-grader Zakkary Greene looked bewildered as a social worker handed him a doll and gave him a quick lesson in proper car seat strap adjustment. He started to sweat as a Child Support Enforcement officer swept him up, lectured him on the grim statistical outcomes for children with no paternal involvement, and then charged him for a $2,500 paternity test. He ended up with thousands of dollars in fines for back child support.

“That’s a lot to be responsible for,” Greene said, wiping his brow.

Southwest Middle teacher Lisa Clark couldn’t help but giggle.

“I’m hoping it will bring them all a dose of reality,” she said.

A group of make-believe dropouts stood and watched as their more fortunate classmates donned caps and gowns and picked up pretend diplomas at the mock graduation ceremony.

Diamond Dies put her hand on her hip and shook her head in disbelief.

“This is not going to happen to me in real life,” she said defiantly.

Dylan Kessler looked down at his fake arrest record with disgust.

“I would be very disappointed if this was real because there is a lot I want to do after I graduate.”

The least fortunate of the participants ended up with Carmel Roeder of Gamble Funeral Service.

“I overdosed,” said Alex Sainz.

“Me, too,” Abigail Compton said sympathetically as they looked over their options for caskets and urns.

Makinzy Thilavong described how her smoking habit resulted in lung cancer.

“Well, I got in an argument, stuff got serious and I got shot,” Alex Rodriguez said.

“Oh yeah? Well I dropped out of high school with a baby, gave the baby up for adoption, then I went to jail and then I got shot,” said a somber Deshawn Baker.

The experience was designed to motivate students to live responsibly and graduate on time.

“They have a lot of decisions to make between eighth grade and graduation,” said Youth Futures Executive Director Edward Chisolm. “We use Youth Futures statistics to show them how many young people just like them end up in these same situations every year in Chatham County. This gives them an opportunity to see just how easy it is to become a statistic.”

Read the story and watch the videos on savannahnow.com.

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