Area teens head to Washington as Peer Ambassadors

Washington, D.C., prepare to get schooled.

A group of teens is heading to the nation's capital today to change minds and alter the way people think about youths.

The teens are part of Peer Ambassadors, a teen group sponsored by a grant through the Mental Health Center of Champaign County.

"We're African-American kids trying to make a difference in our community," said Amber Frazier, a student at Champaign Central High School.

That's a tall order, though, and one the students are tackling through multiple avenues.

They were to leave today for Washington, where they have been invited to present some of what they've found at the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health Conference.

Much of their work centers around meetings with and surveys of youths at Champaign County's Juvenile Detention Center.

There, the ambassadors talk with teens about what they would like their world to look like – an exercise called Ideal Community that the ambassadors plan to show in Washington. They also talk with teens at the detention center about what factors got them into trouble, and what they feel would keep them out of it.

"A lot of teens entering in and out of (the detention center) aren't bad, they just need some support," said Champaign Centennial High School student Veonia Gross.

"When people get in trouble, it's always like 'Oh, that kid's just bad,'" Frazier said. She said community, school and parents have a lot to do with a teen's behavior.

Ambassadors said having teachers to talk to, parents to have dinner with and a knowledge of community resources can all help teens to grow up without violence or drugs – or a trip to jail.

To that end, the students have also been working with Project Access, which aims to give kids leaving the detention center information about community and other resources.

When they get to Washington, they'll present those findings and try to give the audience a sense of what can help kids stay out of places like the detention center, said Gross. They've already presented the findings in Chicago at a similar conference, and around Champaign-Urbana.

To become a Peer Ambassador, students must go through basic training, working on skills like communications. They are skills the students practice plenty, meeting several times a week, with students working on different committees.

"We're currently working with Project Reality," said Jasmine Gay, a student at Urbana High School. "We're working on projects to stop teens from starting to smoke."

In addition, they're trying to make plans and raise money for a teen center "to get the teens off the street," Frazier said. "It's basically like the Boys and Girls Club."

"But for older people," added Jessica Caston, a Centennial student.

Tracy Dace, who facilitates the Peer Ambassadors, said he's seen ambassadors learn better communications skills and be "more responsible in their actions at school and their actions in the community," he said. "They really keep each other on point."

Caston said the group knows much more about the community and its resources than when they first started. In Washington, she hopes to learn about how other communities work with teens.

The eight students on the trip – who have been raising money to pay their way – also hope to do a little sightseeing.

Central student Andrea McIntyre wants to see where Martin Luther King Jr. made his big speech, and Centennial student Monte Caston wants to see the reflecting pools.

They're all giddy about the upcoming trip and about presenting what they've learning to a national audience.

The teens in the group said being part of Peer Ambassadors has helped them to become role models. "Since you're dealing with youth, you don't want to go out in the community being a big fool," Gay said. "You have a big responsibility."

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