At youth conference, students encouraged to make 'great choices'

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PITTSFIELD — The sky's the limit — that was the message Thursday to 200 middle school students who attended the eighth Strive Youth Leadership Conference at the Berkshire Plaza Hotel.

OK, some liberties were taken to emphasize the "I'm it" in limit.

See what they did there?

"When [the students] came in this morning, we had them write down their hopes and dreams and put them in the balloons that we're displaying at the front of the room," said Lizzie Paglier, a Mount Greylock Regional High School senior. "It's a little silly, but the 'I'm it' part means that you're it. It's showing them that you have the potential; you can make a change; you can make a difference in life."

Strive, which stands for Students Teaching Respect, Integrity, Values, Equality, was planned this year by the 23 high school juniors and seniors of the Youth Advisory Board, including Paglier, and the staff of the community outreach and education department of the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.

During her opening remarks, District Attorney Andrea Harrington, attending her first Strive conference, acknowledged that today's teens face more adversity than she did as a middle school student in the 1990s.

"We didn't have the internet when I was your age," she said. "Lockdown drills? We didn't have lockdown drills. You have a lot of challenges I didn't face when I was your age.

"You are going to be the ones who are leading the future, and we're here to give you the tools that you are going to need to do that," she added.

Second-year advisory board members Ashley Barnes and Andrew Sondrini, seniors from Lee and Wahconah Regional high schools, respectively, said they hope the day's events have long-term impacts on the participants.

"When kids from last year's program come up to me and tell me how they were able to say no to doing something they were uncomfortable with, it makes it all worth it," Barnes said.

"We hope today is relaxing and fun, and we hope it will help support you in making great choices in moving forward," Sondrini said.

After an energizing conga line break to the rhythms of Cardi B and Whitney Houston, the students heard from Ashton Mota, a 14-year-old black, Latinx transgender teen human rights advocate from Lowell. Ashton helped support last year's successful campaign to vote "Yes on Question 3" upholding a state law that protects transgender people in public accommodations.

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While Ashton said he is lucky to have a supportive mother, not all LGBTQ teens feel safe and supported at home or in school.

"Imagine waking up in the morning to unsupportive parents. Getting bullied by peers on the walk to school. And sitting in a classroom with a well-intentioned teacher who says nothing when a homophobic or transphobic comment is made in class.

"Situations like this are far too common for LGBTQ students, and it makes it incredibly difficult to learn and to strive," he said, reminding his audience, "But you don't have to be LGBTQ to stand up for equality."

After Ashton's speech, students heard more about how to take negative experiences and transform them into positive lessons. Rebecca White talked about how she was able to find a happy, healthy lifestyle after losing her mother and friend in a drunken driving crash when she was 14. Robert Hackenson talked about how to live a healthier digital lifestyle, thwarting cyberbullying threats and the long-term consequences of posting hateful messages or sexting.

Then, they had candid, confidential conversations in smaller groups about transitioning into high school, discussing everything from how to manage homework to dealing with peer pressure.

"They should do this [conference] with the younger kids," said Skylar Richards, a participant from Drury High School. "You need to make them aware early."

After a catered lunch, the students learned about a positive and a negative way to blow off steam. Members of the Berkshire Pulse dance company taught teens how taking the time to move and breathe deeply can help calm their bodies and minds, while ambassadors from The Eighty Four Movement talked about the addiction, long-term health and lifestyle risks of the practice of teen vaping.

"What starts as a choice turns into a need," said Danielle Adams, referring to the consequences of inhaling the nicotine-laden vapors through an electronic cigarette.

The students also heard firsthand about addiction from members of the Improbable Players theater group who performed skits based on their own trials with drug and alcohol addiction. The troupe members all are in long-term recovery.

Berkshire Pulse's Pamela Badila encouraged the teens to let go of their fears and self-doubts about putting themselves at risk to fit in.

"You deserve to feel great," she said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.come and 413-496-6239.


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