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Above, first responders carry one of the victims in a simulated auto accident to an awaiting helicopter during the Teen Maze preview night Tuesday, Sept. 24. Below, detention officer Brandon Ellis fingerprints a Gilmer High School freshman going through the juvenile justice portion of the maze. (Photos by Whitney Crouch)
 
 
by Whitney Crouch
wcrouch@timescourier.com


Lights flashed and sirens wailed as emergency vehicles arrived at the scene. 

Students leaving a party had collided on a roadway due to one driver’s intoxication and the other’s distracted attempt to text while driving. 
The results were devastating — one passenger was not wearing his seat belt and died after being ejected from the car, two of the other teens received serious injuries and one had to be life-flighted and the intoxicated driver, who had received minor injuries, was arrested. 
Such was the scene Gilmer High School freshmen encountered when they arrived at the Teen Maze the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 25. 
Actual cars that had been involved in crashes were used in the simulation and students witnessed how local emergency services and law enforcement personnel would respond to such a situation.  “It was very convincing,” GHS freshman Alexis Nunn told the Times-Courier. “I got chill bumps ... it was raining that morning and that gave it a horror movie look.” 
She went on to observe that the simulation gave her a new appreciation for the “people who deal with this everyday.”
“Even though it was fake, it really opens your eyes (and reminds you) that you’re not invincible,” added Mountain Education Charter High School student Derek Williams who was one of over 80 people to come to the community preview night for the maze Tuesday, Sept. 24.


Talking about tough issues
The simulated auto accident was only the sobering beginning of the Teen Maze, which was held at the Lions Club Fairgrounds and was designed to show teens the consequences of their decisions. 
After viewing the car crash scenario, participants were randomly assigned life choices that dictated how they proceeded through the interactive maze. Along the way they learned about such topics as sexually transmitted infections,  dating violence, teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse.  While some participants got a taste of the consequences that can come from bad decisions, others experienced the success of reaching a goal by donning graduation robes and receiving a mock high school diploma. 
“Through the Teen Maze we can address tough issues,” observed volunteer Bill Leinmiller, adding it was a “relevant and potentially life changing” experience for area teens. 
“To me it’s planting seeds,” added event organizer and Family Connection Merle Howell Naylor. 
Gwen Calhoun, another organizer and counselor at GHS, echoed these thoughts as she discussed the conversations that have been inspired by the maze. 
“Sometimes parents have a hard time broaching subjects (with their teens),” she observed, adding her hope that the event has helped to “open up a lot of communication in homes” about difficult subjects. 
As she went on to state, some of the things students encountered in the maze may “stay lodged in their brains” and impact the conversations they have with their own children in the future.
In coordination with the maze, the freshmen attended a presentation by District Attorney Alison Sosebee, school resource officer Jaime Cantrell and assistant principal Melinda Fonteboa at the high school about such topics as teen driving laws, bullying, assault and social media use. 


Making a difference
Area students responded positively to the maze. 
“If the community had had something like this three years ago, I wouldn’t be in the court system now,” Williams told the Times-Courier. 
“It’s really educational and might make a difference in a young person ending up in the court system or not,” he continued. “I really believe this is a positive and everyone can learn something from this.”
Williams was particularly impressed by how many people who actually worked in the fields portrayed in the maze were on hand to talk with students. For instance, the emergency room scene was staffed by actual hospital employees and in the juvenile justice scenario students encountered a real judge. 
“Maybe would have scared me,” Williams mused as he reiterated his wish that the community had offered the event in the past. 
Naylor also spoke of the importance of the teens seeing community representatives at the event, stating, “Hopefully the students know they have the community support.”

Students’ perspectives
Owen Cochran, a freshman at GHS, has taken to heart the motto for the maze — “Your choice, your future.” 
As he spoke with the Times-Courier, he displayed the half-dozen maze commemorative armbands bearing that phrase, which he has collected from his friends since the event. 
“When you make your choice, you make your future. Make a bad choice and you make a bad future,” he stated.
Fellow ninth grader Morgan Aaron has also been collecting armbands because she wants to remember the event and have “a reminder to avoid certain things.” 
She got a taste of the juvenile justice system as part of her trip through the maze, recalling how she had to wear an orange jumpsuit, get her mug shot taken and perform community service. 
Throughout the experience, she kept thinking “I never want this to happen to me.” 
“It was as close to real life as you’re going to get without it really happening, she went on to say, adding most of her peers “took it seriously.”
Nunn agreed, noting she particularly liked the hands-on format of the event. 
“It was really unique and well organized,” she stated, adding that for her scenario she had to wear an apron containing a bag of rice that simulated pregnancy. “It got your attention and I didn’t feel bored ... there were a lot of legal things I didn’t know (and I saw how) you start with one bad thing and it’s compounded.” 
She also mentioned, “(The people running the maze) treated you as if you’d done those things ... it showed how society would look on you if you did them.”
For part of his scenario, freshman Tyler Queen put on a pair of Fatal Vision® Impairment Goggles, which are designed to cause the wearer to mimic behaviors exhibited by someone who is drunk, and drove a golf cart through an obstacle course. 
“I hit about four cones,” he recalled, going on to describe how as his scenario unfolded he had to go to court, jail and rehab and as a result of his “choices” never reached graduation. 
“It was interesting to experience the consequences of different things,” he stated, adding his hope that the experience will help his classmates “realize there’s more to life than drugs and sex.” 


Appreciation for the community
While event organizers described developing the Teen Maze as a “huge undertaking,” they were pleased with the way it turned out and are optimistic about the impact it had on the lives of local students. 
“This was a test year and I think we passed the test,” Naylor stated. “All of the agencies (that helped put on the event) were so wonderful. We’re all pleased with all the community efforts and students’ reactions.”
Tim Mount, organizer and site administrator for the Ellijay campus of the Mountain Education Charter High School, agreed with this assessment, stating, “I don’t think I heard one negative word (about the event) except there was not enough time (to go through the maze).” 
In regards to the agencies who made the event possible, he added, “We can’t say thank you enough. They had no idea what to expect, and it was good to see them stay on board.”


The beginning of an annual event
As Leinmiller observed, organizers may never be able to tangibly identify the way the Teen Maze has impacted lives, but it is still a worthwhile endeavor. 
“(In the midst of peer pressure) you don’t have time to run home and talk it over with mom and dad. Hopefully this made an impact so teens take better care in making decisions,” he stated. 
Several of the event organizers stated they are already looking forward to next year’s maze, and the students who were interviewed agreed that the Teen Maze should become an annual event for Gilmer County. 
“I think other kids should experience it,” Nunn emphasized. 
Aaron agreed, proclaiming she would enjoy going to the event over and over. 
“I think it’s worth the money put into it,” she asserted. 
In conclusion, Williams expressed his hope that more students will get to experience the meaningful event. 
“If it made a difference in one person’s life, made them rethink one choice, it’s been good,” he stated. 


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