BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
When it comes to growing up, there may be no more awkward a time than the eighth grade.
High school is looming in the coming school year, and peer pressure is often a daily struggle.
On Wednesday, local leaders and volunteers reached out to local eighth-graders by inviting every student in the county at this grade level to come together for a half-day that combined entertainment with some advice seasoned by life experience.
Each year, the Volunteer Center of Greeneville and Greene County coordinate the Youth Summit in an effort to advise area youth on good character traits, smart decision-making and avoidance of substance abuse.
Key among the messages given to the 850 students present at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center on Wednesday was their ability to make their own choices, to stand up to peer pressure, and to remember their own value.
"You all are very special," Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles told the group.
"Eight hundred fifty very special people in front of someone makes one feel now as a pair of brown shoes would feel in a room full of tuxedos," he joked.
Then, turning serious, he surveyed the large crowd, saying, "We're here to ask you to accept challenges, to be productive citizens."
The county mayor reminded the students of the faith others have in their future and their abilities.
"We ask you today, and we challenge you, to take care of your body. Your body is your temple. Stay off of drugs," he said.
"Greene County will always support you. Greene County believes in you," Broyles added.
Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels reemphasized that message.
"You guys are special," Daniels said. "You mean so much to this community."
Turning the conversation personal and sharing a recent conversation he said he had with his own daughter, Daniels reminded the students of the importance of respecting themselves.
Self-respect, he said, can build respect for others and change one's outlook.
"Be in charge of your own destiny; don't be misled," he added. "Do not use difficulties as an excuse to turn to drugs."
Sharing his office number, Daniels encouraged everyone not to hesitate to call him.
"If you ever need anybody, please do not hesitate to come to my office," he concluded.
STATE REP. HAWK
State Rep. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, also spoke briefly to the students, sharing his experiences with his daughter much as Daniels had shared his.
Hawk encouraged the students to make friends, but to bring in one or two people as a "confidant" as they grow older -- someone, he said, with whom they can share their inner thoughts and concerns.
"Life's not easy," he said. "I can't sugar-coat it for you."
However, he reminded students of the "age-old adage" about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Problems won't just go away, Hawk said, and must be faced.
"One day at a time and you're going to be fine," he concluded.
MISS GREENE COUNTY
Sarah Stokely, also known as Miss Greene County 2013, came to the stage in her sparkling crown to remind the students that she was in their shoes not so long ago.
"I've been where you are; I understand the trials and tribulations," she said.
Rather than sharing cliché slogans, Stokely said, she told the students she would share a brief story about a married man who made the mistake of partying with drugs and alcohol before getting behind the wheel and ending up in a terrible wreck that killed a young mother.
The moral, she said, is that each person's decisions affect others as well.
"Every time you feel pressured ... think about how it's going to affect your life," she added.
Stokley also noted her platform as Miss Greene County: "Commit to Your Community."
"If you ever feel you're not accepted by your peers, commit to your community," she said. "There are many in the community who will accept you."
The morning took a sobering turn when Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. took the stage to introduce two individuals he knows who are overcoming a past of drug addiction.
"Unfortunately, every Tuesday I'm having to say to more and more juveniles, 'You can't go home to your parents today,'" Bailey said, explaining that, instead, he is sending them into rehabilitation for drug abuse.
Asking students to raise their hands as he called out professions they may want to fill when they grow up, he noted that no hands were raised when he asked about growing up to be a drug addict.
"It's a miserable life," he agreed.
Students then heard from Dr. Stephen Loyd, Chief of Staff for Education at the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a former substance abuse addict.
Loyd had students stand in sections to demonstrate various statistics, such as that, as a national average, half of eighth-graders have already tried alcohol, nearly half have smoked cigarettes, and one-fourth have smoked marijuana.
Loyd warned that even prescription drug abuse is a "dangerous mistake" that can lead to heroin abuse. He demonstrated how addicts "shoot up" heroin with a needle.
"That grosses you out -- there's no way you could do that," he said. "But that's where you end up [when addicted.]"
Students also heard from Danielle, a young woman going through Bailey's Drug Court addiction-recovery program, who shared her downward spiral that first began in middle school and escalated as she grew older.
"I lost everything," she said. "I never thought of the consequences until it hit me.
"This Drug Court program really saved my life."
In addition to hearing several speakers, the youth were treated to performances by the Greeneville Middle School Band, the Greeneville High School Chorus, and a group of teenage acrobats from Fletcher, N.C.
The Greeneville High School Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) conducted a flag ceremony.
Students also viewed "Forgotten Son," a short film about a young boy whose mother becomes addicted to methamphetamine.
The event was sponsored by Consumer Credit Union, the Niswonger Foundation, Greeneville Adventist Academy, Laughlin Memorial Hospital, Takoma Regional Hospital Foundation, Rotary International, Kiwanis International, American Calendar Co., the Greeneville Water Commission, LMR Plastics, Andrew Johnson Bank, C&C Millwright, Corley's Pharmacy, and Staff Pro.