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GTI to the rescue
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It's not often one can drive by Oxford College of Emory University and see Superman, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk strolling along the walkways - last week and this week would be exceptions.

Oxford College hosts the Georgia Teen Institute - a youth leadership and drug prevention program - this year. Middle school students met last week and high school students will meet this week.

GTI's theme this year involves superheroes with the motto from Spiderman: "with great power, comes great responsibility."

"We believe in youth empowerment," said GTI Director Jessica Andrews.

Andrews said everyone has unique talents such as public speaking, listening to others and organizing events.

"But, we must do something with those talents that is good for our self and good for the world," Andrews said.

School officials are responsible for recruiting students who are aspiring leaders to participate in the program.

Andrews went through the high school program in 1993. After six days of intensive training she joined the youth staff as a freshman in college, and worked as a senior staff member before becoming director.

Bradford Jernigan, 13, of Monroe was nominated by his physical science teacher at Carver Middle School to attend the institute. Tori Griffin, 11, of Lawrenceville came with her community and faith-based youth awareness organization, Touch a Life.

Andrews explained how GTI differs from other drug abuse prevention programs.

"We don't just bring them here and teach them to say no to drugs," Andrews said. "We teach them how to make their communities a better place."

The first thing GTI participants do is brainstorm and hypothesize about problems plaguing their communities. Then staff members give them government statistics relating to drug use, gang activity and teen pregnancy, which they match against their estimates.

"We know that adults can sit around all day and say these are the problems in our schools," Andrews said, "but the kids are exposed to it every day, and they really know what the problems are better than adults."

Jernigan said he was shocked by the number of teen pregnancies and how easily sixth-graders reported they had access to drugs in his area, but also pleasantly surprised about how many teens reported they had been offered drugs and said no.

Griffin said statistics about sexually transmitted diseases made her squirm a bit, but she was thankful for the information.

"We learned how easy it is to get some STDs," Griffin said, "and that it's important not to have sex with someone before you're married."

GTI is also different because of its solution-based curriculum.

"We help them come up with the strategies about how to get the word out and how to get the community involved," Andrews said.

She said each plan is unique, which sets the program apart from others that have very prescriptive ideas for community involvement.

"We don't do that because each community is different," Andrews said.

Jernigan said bullying was a big problem at his school, and usually students didn't take what teachers and principals have to say about the matter to heart. He said he plans to help make public service announcements for his school's morning announcements.

"We think they'll hear it more from their fellow peers," Jernigan said.

He also said obesity is a major concern for all American schools and he wants his school administrators to stock the vending machines with healthier options and implement a weekly family exercise night.

Griffin said the members of Touch a Life already had ideas for fundraising and awareness events, and GTI helped them understand the steps they needed to take in organizing, advertising and accomplishing their goals.

The group wants to coordinate an "internet safety pep-rally" in Lawrenceville.

"Our goal is to stop younger children from ages 9 to 18 to keep them off of inappropriate Web sites where internet predators could talk to them," Griffin said.

Andrews added GTI teaches students to use resources and organizations already in place in their communities so they don't have to "reinvent the wheel."

The institute is not all work and no play however. Andrews listed events such as pep-rally like key note sessions, "Crazy Olympics" and scavenger hunts as a way to foster social interaction and fun.

Students also get a glimpse of postsecondary life since they stay in Oxford's residence halls during the week.

"They really do get a taste for what it's like to stay on a college campus and be away from home," Andrews said.

Since 1988, GTI has given students the power - not to fly, spin webs or smash things - but to inspire others and affect change in their corners of the world.

"At GTI they teach you how to be good leaders, teach you how to be drug free," Jernigan said, "and how to live up to your potential."