- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - Dashavon Givens comes from an unconventional family background.

The 17-year-old Quincy girl spent most of her childhood living with her grandmother. At one point she struggled in school and sometimes got into trouble. She longed for a more nurturing environment.

Givens found help through the Teen Reach program, which has been operating in Quincy since 1998.

Under this program - housed in the former Irving School at Ninth and Payson - at-risk students ages 6 to 17 receive help from a team of adults and fellow students. The youths get assistance with homework. They take part in fun activities. They are given meals each weekday. They can talk with others about concerns in their lives.

Givens has been coming to Teen Reach since she was 6 and now works in the program as a tutor. The Quincy High School senior will be done with Teen Reach after this school year. She plans to head to college next fall.

Givens said Teen Reach has been a blessing for her because the program filled a void in her life and provided support when she needed it most. She credits the program for keeping her on track academically through some rocky times.

“I’ve been coming here forever,” Givens said. “When I first started coming, I was living with my grandmother and my brother. I still don’t know who my dad is, and my mom is not in my life. So coming here made me feel welcome, like I’ve got another family.”

She said the program helped turn things around for her.

“I wasn’t a perfect kid,” she said. “When I was living with my grandma, I was doing horrible in school. My grades were horrible. Everything was just downhill.”

‘This is where I wanted to be’

One of the adults working in the Teen Reach program, Cheryl Williams, decided several years ago that Givens could use extra attention and positive role modeling. So in a leap of faith for both of them, she invited Givens to come live with her.

“Cheryl took me in to help me, and I just kind of stuck with her because in a way she’s my mom,” Givens said.

Cheryl Williams previously worked as executive director of the Two Rivers Regional Council of Public Officials in Quincy. In her free time, she would do volunteer work at Teen Reach and became impressed at how beneficial the program could be for at-risk youths.

“When I started working with the kids, I decided this is where I wanted to be,” Williams said. “When you get in here with the kids and you start seeing their needs and their potential, you want to make a difference.”

Last April, Cheryl Williams became the wife of Dennis Williams, who has been director of the Teen Reach almost from its inception. They are now both paid employees of the program. Cheryl works as the project administrator, while Dennis remains the director.

In his role, Dennis Williams is the chief enforcer of the program’s rules. He also serves as a father figure to many of the youths who participate each weekday from 3 to 6:30 p.m., including Givens.

“He’s like the father of Teen Reach,” said Kyell Yisrael, 14, who has been taking part in the program for about a year. “He helps us - and he’s awesome. He leads people to success. He tells us what the real thing is.”

Williams makes himself available to Teen Reach students around the clock in case they need help with anything important.

“His phone rings 24 hours a day,” Cheryl Williams said.

Dennis Williams said he believes it’s vital for Teen Reach personnel to build trust with the youths, so he always gives honest, up-front answers to their questions.

“We are here for them, and we’re going to be here for them,” he said. “They’ve got to learn how to survive in life, so they get the real picture of what’s out there.”

Tutoring a major component

As part of the Teen Reach program, students are taught to be responsible and self-motivated. They also are encouraged to be polite and friendly. When a visitor walks into the Teen Reach center, students routinely walk up to the visitor and introduce themselves with a smile and handshake.

Mike Nobis, chairman of the Teen Reach board of directors, believes the program is having a positive impact on many local youths who need an extra boost to help them with school, help them get jobs and help them with life in general.

“Most of these kids come from single-parent families, and almost all of them come from a lower social rung in life,” Nobis said.

“The biggest problem with the kids we’re dealing with is they just don’t have a support system that stays on them about getting their homework done.”

That’s why tutoring is a major component of the Teen Reach program. Several retired teachers and other community volunteers - along with several part-time student tutors like Dashavon Givens - spend time each day helping the youths with their studies, but they also offer support with other things going on in their lives.

“Many of them have a lot of family issues,” Nobis said. “Maybe one of their parents is in jail, or some parents have other issues, like drugs or drinking or whatever. It really does affect the family and really affects the kids.”

Nobis said Teen Reach provides a safe environment where youths are encouraged to overcome some of the barriers they face.

“We focus on the academics first, then we try to provide a safe place for them to go every day to be able to vent, to learn about life and be able to take care of each other,” said Nobis, who has been volunteering with the program for about three years.

Retired newspaper editor Joe Conover, now a flourishing artist, also has worked with many Teen Reach youths in recent years.

He has given writing tips to students, but he also has given art lessons to some interested students who visited his studio.

“One session we did plaster castings of their faces,” he said. “They thought it was cool.”

Conover is a big believer in the value of the Teen Reach program.

“The main thing they get out of it is they realize they can do certain things,” he said. “It empowers them to the point of saying, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ So it builds them up in that way.”

Talking in the ‘red room’

One of the most popular sites inside the Teen Reach center is the “red room,” a place where youths gather each day to talk about issues they are facing.

“In the red room, we usually have our family discussions,” Dashavon Givens said. “We talk about life and how our homes are. You get your feelings out. It’s really helpful.”

Malika Brooks, 14, started coming to Teen Reach six years ago, tagging along with her two older sisters.

“I just kind of stuck with it,” she said.

Brooks, now a ninth-grader, said she benefits from the discussions that take place in the red room.

“There’s been a lot of stuff that’s going on with me,” she said.

Brooks said it helps to talk things out with others who understand, though she found it a little unnerving at first to speak in front of a group.

“After a while, you get used to it,” she said.

Makween Parrish, 15, has been coming to Teen Reach for about five years. She said the program has been a big help to her.

“It’s a life changer,” he said. “We have our ups and downs, but they help you through everything.”

Bradley Eston, 13, has been coming to Teen Reach for about two years.

He said the program’s emphasis on tutoring has been a big help to him academically.

“It’s working out good,” he said. “In fifth grade, I started out with D’s. Then since I got into Teen Reach, I’ve been getting A’s and B’s. They’ve really been helping me keep up my grades.”

Brooks also credits the Teen Reach program for inspiring her to do better in school and for strengthening her study habits. She now plans to attend college. Her goal is to be an honor student.

Brooks believes Teen Reach benefits local youths in multiple ways. For one thing, she said, it gives kids something to do for several hours each day after school.

“It helps kids stay out of trouble, especially in school and outside of school, so they’re not picking fights with people,” she said.

Brooks is one of several Teen Reach participants who take advantage of an after-school girls volleyball program made available to the students through Quincy Christian School.

Teen Reach also gives kids a chance to take part in a host of recreational activities offered at the center, where a gym is available for dances, dodgeball games and other group events.

“Sometimes it gets a little crazy when there’s a lot of kids, but it’s awesome,” Givens said.

Earning travel rewards

As an incentive for participating in the Teen Reach program and for good behavior, multiple students can earn a coveted annual prize — an out-of-town group trip to a big city, such as Chicago, St. Louis or Kansas City.

“It teaches them if you work hard, you get rewards,” Nobis said. “Some of these kids don’t have a chance to get out and travel and stay in a hotel and see things, so this is a big deal for them.”

Lachelle Wigfall, a program educator at Teen Reach, said the out-of-town trips provide some eye-opening experiences for the youths, especially those who have never ventured outside the city limits of Quincy.

“They get to eat at different restaurants they haven’t eaten at before, and they get to pick what they want to eat,” Wigfall said. “Some of these kids have never picked their own food before. When they saw that menu, they said, ‘You want me to do what?’ “

During a recent trip to Chicago, Teen Reach youths scored free tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance in recognition of their good efforts with the program.

“It was awesome. We got front-row seats. It was like a lifetime experience,” Brooks recalled. “We were like their guests at the show, and we got all the attention. We all dressed up together and did our hair.”

What’s more, a doorman at the hotel noticed how well-mannered the Quincy youths were compared to other youth groups he had seen.

“Our kids impressed him,” Cheryl Williams recalled. “Our kids were always real polite, and the doorman knew us as a result of that.”

As the group’s leaders stood in the lobby trying to decide between a taxi or a bus to get to the theater, the doorman stepped forward and asked: “Would you like them to go in a limo?”

The doorman explained that a limo would actually be more economical and would provide a more memorable experience for the kids. And he would be happy to make the arrangements.

It didn’t take much convincing.

“We walked outside, and there was a limo!” Givens said. “I loved it.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://bit.ly/1tEgjxP

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com

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