By David Voegele
Executive Director, Essex CHIPS

Last week I wrote briefly about Essex ATI (Above the Influence), a local teen group consisting primarily of Essex High School students. The impact of this CHIPS program has been growing in recent years, so a fuller description of it seems warranted. At one level ATI is simply a group of 15-18 students who gather to socialize in a substance free space one evening a week. At a higher level, this group of older teens is seeking to “be the influence” for their peers and younger students.

Every day enormous pressure confronts youth, regarding issues such as body image, substance use, and relationships – both from the media and their peers. Many older teens, who actively seek to rise above such pressure, feel a responsibility to support those who are younger and perhaps more at risk because of these influences. “I joined ATI because I heard about the great things that it does for the community and the positive influence it has on younger kids by providing them with positive role models and providing them with advice on how to live a safe happy life” said Olivia Doty, an EHS senior.

The ATI group plans, and coordinates youth-led projects that support the students of the Essex Westford School District (EWSD). These initiatives engage teens in rewarding and challenging activities that encourage healthy life style choices. One example over the past year was a culinary project supported by the EWSD, and generously hosted by the Inn at Essex.

At this maple-themed event, ATI members and about 25 students (6th-8th grade) participated together in a two-hour cooking class. This gave students from the Albert D. Lawton, Essex Middle, and Westford schools the opportunity to learn some cool culinary skills It also enabled these youth to interact with students from other schools (and the ATI members) in a stress-free and cooperative environment. The younger kids had a blast, and asked questions of ATI members about what high school is like. The older ATI teens were able to “be the influence” for the younger students.

According to Lindsay Falby (a guidance counselor at Essex Middle School), “Our students who participated were so thankful for an opportunity to explore an interest outside of the academic setting. I know they mentioned many times that it was so cool to have people at school and the community who were invested in supporting ideas like this one at The Essex.”

In addition to fun and enriching experiences (like the cooking class), Essex ATI has coordinated school and community presentations on topics that are important to the health of Essex youth. This past year, ATI conducted an anti-bullying workshop at one local school, and a community presentation at EHS about the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes for teens.

The ATI youth are older high school students concerned about making good choices, and being role models for younger teens. We applaud their maturity and service to others. They represent another important characteristic of a Quality Youth Development (QYD) community.