A local youth-focused nonprofit has had a renaissance that began in 2019.
That’s when Empower Johnson County, focused on preventing youth substance abuse, added a youth committee, called the Empowered Youth Coalition. While the organization, founded in 2015, had events at schools and discussed the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and drug use, those efforts took off after the organization decided to form a youth council, said Miranda Broomfield, who leads the group and has a teenager of her own.
The coalition has turned its focus to not only preventing substance abuse among students, but helping provide peer-to-peer conversations and assisting those who may have mental health struggles, she said.
“What the youth bring to the table, they get everyone excited. We can think we know what’s going on in teens’ lives but we’re not in school every day and don’t understand the stress and what they’re going through unless we ask them and they’re at the table. This allows them a seat at the table to share their real experiences,” Broomfield said.
During Red Ribbon Week, which focuses on educating younger students on the dangers of substance abuse, the coalition was able to reach a record of about 16,000 students across 23 elementary, intermediate and middle schools across Johnson County, said Michelle McMahon, community coordinator for Empower Johnson County.
Next, the coalition will host a free movie event for students and their families at the Artcraft Theatre in downtown Franklin Dec. 21, with a double feature of “Elf,” which will be teen-only screening, and “The Santa Clause,” which will be for students and their families, said Will Pruitt, a freshman at Greenwood Community High School.
“The group is very important,” Pruitt said. “It allows teens to open up to listen to each other talk about things. Instead of an adult saying ‘listen to us, we know what’s best for you,’ if it’s peers, it’s more useful. The movie event is a good way to get the community together.”
There are 12 students from Greenwood, Franklin and Center Grove schools currently on the coalition, and the goal is to get all six Johnson County school districts involved, Broomfield said.
Ananya Balaji, a Center Grove High School senior, wanted to join the group when she saw her peers’ mental health struggles.
“Mental health, with COVID, became an even greater problem,” Balaji said. “For myself, with the lockdown and everything, it was tough to stay on track with school work. With my friend group and the community, a lot of us were switching from blended and eLearning, and it was tough to keep track of our classes. With Red Ribbon Week, we targeted substance abuse, which is an important issue within the high school, and the second semester is focused on mental health. I’m thinking of engaging in leadership opportunities where we can learn about mental health and speak with classmates.”
Mental health outreach will include the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) tactic, which can help people identify if someone is having serious struggles with their mental health in order to refer them to people who can help them, McMahon said.
To increase outreach, the coalition went on a local radio station recently to promote the movie event, said Josh Partain, a Center Grove High School freshman.
“My guidance counselor told me about Empowered Youth,” Partain said. “I decided it would be good for me and the community to spread awareness. With new social media platforms, mental health is becoming an even bigger issue. It includes TikTok and not only social media, but gaming systems. People are made fun of because of how they look at dress or if they’re good enough at a game. Mental health is something we should build with.”