Teen-agers who tackle society's problems . Award winners helped feed the poor, saved lives, repaired housing

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Billy Hanes began organizing a rock concert to benefit the Food Bank of northwest North Carolina last year, directors of the nonprofit food-distribution agency called him into their office and asked what adult was supervising his concert. Billy, who put up $400 of his own money to rent sound equipment and the Winston-Salem Convention Center, ran up a $98 phone bill soliciting 17 bands from up and down the East Coast, and netted a $1,900 profit for the Food Bank, had no adult supervisor.

He is now the Food Bank's youngest director.

Billy is one of 53 teen-agers who have received Sea Breeze awards, sponsored by Clairol Inc., for showing ``the spirit of young America'' in trying to solve problems in their families, their communities, and the country as a whole. Each winner received $500 and a citation. Ten of the teen-agers will be honored at an awards reception on Capitol Hill in February.

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Some winners, like Wayne Theurer of Houston, and Scott White of Lawton, Okla., showed heroism in an emergency and saved lives.

Others, like Beulah Spencer of Keams Canyon, Ariz., and Eric Tyrrell, of Rumney, N.H., took major responsibility in supporting their families financially and emotionally.

Many used imagination, energy, and compassion in tackling social problems that have baffled adults.

High school students might shrug off the goals of Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD), figured Kirsten Stellick, of Richfield, Minn., but few students would shrug if supporting SADD meant sending the school principal to jail for a night.

Principal Richard Maas didn't shrug either.

``He was shocked at first,'' Kirsten reports. ```Do I actually have to spend the night in jail?' was the first question he asked.''

Kirsten eventually persuaded both Mr. Maas and Richfield mayor John Hamilton to take part in a publicity stunt by going to jail if 90 percent of the students at Richfield Senior High signed a statement supporting SADD and the community donated $500. Both men went behind bars.

``It was more to get people to notice us than to get them to join,'' says Kirsten of the event, which got local television coverage. SADD followed up by publicizing alcohol treatment centers and successfully soliciting sponsorships to set up a Home Safe program, providing safe rides for drivers who drink too much and for their passengers.

Not all Sea Breeze winners attracted public attention. For five years, Jill Bender of Mansfield, Ohio, quietly raised money with her youth group at Ontario United Methodist Church and repaired houses on Johns Island, S.C. The church has sponsored this kind of work on the island for well over a decade.

Wooden houses rot quickly in the heat and humidity of Johns Island, with loose ends of tar paper curling off roofs, damp spots spreading in ceilings, and flakes of paint peeling off outer walls. In poorer communities, repair work is a constant need.

Last summer, as the smallest and lightest member of the group, Jill lay on her stomach on the steepest part of a roof, ripping off old tar paper, replacing rotten boards, and patching seams with tar while another teen-ager held her by the ankles.

As president of the youth group, Jill organized car washes and the manufacture and sale of candy and sandwiches to raise the $1,500 a year needed for building materials on the island.

Sea Breeze co-winners Robin Goldfaden of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., and Liz Weiner of Montvale, N.J., tried to stop the problem of teen suicide in their high school.

The suicide awareness group they founded last year organized a three-day workshop to help students recognize suicidal behavior and know how to respond. This year they have formed a peer support group to try to help depressed teens in the school. The group is also speaking to freshmen and sophomore classes with the message that high school is survivable and that students care.

``A lot of what causes the depression that leads to suicide is loneliness,'' says Robin. ``We want our fellow students to know that whatever thing is bothering them they can come to us, and we'll listen.''

Two teen suicides in the last two years have put Pascack Hills school district in a high-risk category. In that affluent community, ``there's a lot of pressure to be as successful as the people around you,'' Robin notes.

``It's hard to admit that you have a problem if everyone else seems OK,'' she continues. Teen-agers don't like to stand out and be different. But if they did they might find that others share their problem.''

Robin decided to get involved in suicide prevention after a close friend of hers made a suicide attempt. Rather than becoming depressed by her work with troubled students, she finds that her positive action helps keep her spirits up.

``If someone comes to you with a problem that you can identify with, and if you can help them see a way out of it, if affects you too,'' she explains.

Other Sea Breeze winners agree that they benefit personally from the work they do to help others.

``This has broadened my perspective a lot,'' says Billy Hanes, who helps unload trucks of canned goods, fruit, bread, and crackers, at the Food Bank warehouse, as well as organizing volunteers and fundraising events. ``Before, I had rarely been downtown, on this side of the tracks, you might say.''

He jokes cheerfully with warehouse staff as he negotiates around head-high stacks of boxes to reach the back offices. There he pulls out files describing how the Food Bank distributes 1.5 million pounds of free food a year to local soup kitchens, emergency shelters, children's homes, and church pantry programs.

``When it gets to the point that I can't give, life gets pretty vain,'' he says. ``There's really a need out there.''

Jill Bender describes her yearly work on Johns Island as a cross-cultural experience, a visit to an almost forgotten place where people speak with accents so thick that she can hardly understand them, where huge old trees drip with gray Spanish moss, and where the air smells of the ocean, of fish, and of rotting vegetation.

The fruit stand that her group built for an old man one year is still in place beside the highway, a little faded, but sturdy beneath the weight of summer tomatoes, peaches, and watermelons.

Last year, the elderly woman whose home Jill repaired thanked the group with a traditional Southern meal of fried chicken, pork chops, rice, okra, green beans, and cornbread.

``It was all good, but very different from what we're use to up here,'' Jill says.

Kirsten Stellick says that the 15 hours a week she spends on SADD activities are an outlet for her energy and passion for achievement. She also organized an experimental business with Junior Achievement, volunteers at her church, plays sports, and studies. ``I like to be involved and I love to meet people and I like to help people. And I'm a workaholic,'' she explains with a laugh.

Kirsten got the idea of sending the principal and mayor to jail from a SADD handbook, but admits that she is the only person she ever heard of who actually tried it.

Like most of the Sea Breeze winners, she succeeded not through expertise but through hard work and a powerful willingness to try.

Robin Goldfaden believes that simply trying to help another student can be important. Although she urges severely depressed teens to talk with professionals like the school psychologist, she encourages student volunteers to give peer support.

``You can't always have an answer, but sometimes if you can show them that you care about what's happening, that can be almost as helpful as giving them a solution,'' she says.

Jill learned on the job, from adult leaders, and through trial and error, how to raise money and renovate houses.

Now, after five years of experience, she describes how to replace a ceiling: ``You have to tear down the old dry wall, and there's all this insulation that's decayed; you have to take that out, and then you put up new insulation. Then you nail up new sheets of dry wall to the two-by-fours, and then you put on tape to seal the seams.''

Billy admits that he had ``zero knowledge'' of bands, promotion, organization, and leadership before he produced the benefit concert, which he describes as ``like a math problem where somehow you got the right answer even though the work is wrong.''

For three months he spent so much time talking with advertising agents, radio stations, and college students, trying to learn how to produce the concert, that his grades dropped.

``I had no experience,'' he explains. ``But that's not what it takes. What it takes is giving.''

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