BECKET -- Sex, drugs and homelessness -- these are among some of the things Berkshire County teenagers are confronting these days.
The good news is, they don't have to confront them alone.
Earlier this week, the Berkshire Youth Development Project sponsored its fifth annual Berkshire Youth Workers Summit. About 30 adults from schools and agencies who work with young people convened Thursday at YMCA Camp Becket-Chimney Corners.
In the morning, Lois Daunis, program and grants coordinator for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, and Pittsfield Prevention Partnership coordinator Karen Cole, co-moderated a presentation on a youth behavior study known as the Prevention Needs Assessment Survey. The survey is done with Berkshire County eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders every two years. This current report includes comparative data from 2009 and 2011.
After the presentation, members of the Berkshire Youth Workers Summit spent the rest of the afternoon meeting in smaller groups to discuss and develop year-round programs, initiatives and special events to better support young people and their needs.
"There are no facilitators for these sessions because you're the experts on this stuff," said summit co-organizer Kate Merrigan, youth program coordinator for nbCC. "I thank you for being here and taking the time to talk about these things."
Eleven focus groups formed to discuss the following: Planning a conference for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) youth and their straight allies; youth homelessness; sexual health and habits of teens; working toward a tobacco-free generation; a prosocial approach to connecting youth with jobs; youth and the criminal justice system; community engagement opportunities beyond school settings; economic disparities; identifying and supporting underserved/underrepresented youth; opiod/heroin prevention; and youth, social networks, communication and media literacy.
Some issues may be of broad concern but affect smaller populations of youth, such as being a LGBTQ or homeless youth or juvenile offender. Issues among these populations also vary.
For example Jocelyn Vassos, apprenticeship and mentoring director for Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington, came across a half-dozen teens and young adults last year who did not have housing. The youths were camping on Monument Mountain in the summer, but needed to transition into shelters in the winter.
On the other hand, Sarah Kline is a case manager for roughly 80 homeless youths in North Adams Public Schools. Many of the young people she works with couch surf, regularly moving between different people's homes because they're not old enough to qualify for shelter housing. BerkshireWorks youth counselor Kelly Groves said she meets young people with housing insecurity every day.
Other issues tend to confront larger populations of kids and teens, like deciding whether to drink alcohol, use tobacco, try drugs and have sex. According to the 2013 Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, nearly 32 percent of eight-graders, 58 percent of high school sophomores and 75 percent of seniors said they have tried alcohol at least once in their lives, more than just a few sips.
Youth workers said they generally try to put these matters into context, such as presenting the facts and consequences of either engaging in or abstaining from these activities.
What's common about all these issues is that youth workers are finding many kids and teens generally lack contextual information about and knowledge of resources available to help them and the skills to cope and thrive.
Kristin Leonard is an eighth-grade English teacher at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield. There, she also co-supervises with guidance counselor Linda Whitacre Reid's chapter of SADD -- Students Against Destructive Decisions.
Leonard said students generally lack the strong social skills needed to positively confront an adverse matter.
"If something happens to them, they might just get angry or defensive about it. They don't know how to respond," Leonard said.
Eric Wilder, director of programs for Goodwill Industries, said his organization specifically offers a so-called "soft skills" training program because of this. The program helps people develop proactive communication skills and teaches people how to carry themselves and dress properly for work.
"We try to help education people to enhance their quality of life," he said, adding that "mentoring is key" in helping people learn and understand concepts like positive response and work ethic.
Diane McCauley works with young people through the Juvenile Resource Center, a resource of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office. She said a lot of the teens she works with come in downtrodden and with negative attitudes.
"They've been told, usually by adults, that they're ‘difficult.' Yes, sometimes they're difficult but they're worth the effort," McCauley said. "I tell my kids all the time that [their struggles and attitudes] are understandable, but not excusable."
Amanda Martin, a youth substance abuse specialist for the Brien Center, said the biggest obstacle to better supporting youth and more positive outcomes is connection, between youth workers, schools, parents and kids themselves.
Martin said youths may neither have the confidence nor the role models for how to advocate for themselves when they're struggling.
"They may not be hearing it at home, so we need to give young people expectations and support as a community," she said.
To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink