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Teen Maze teaches 8th graders about life choices


AS SEEN IN THE DAILY-TRIBUNE: http://www.daily-tribune.com/newsx/item/2501-teen-maze-teaches-8th-graders-about-life-choices


The devastation caused by someone’s split-second decision to get behind the wheel of a car with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit is something Tish Stephens and Tiki Finlayson never want anyone to face.

The two women shared their story of how Stephens killed Finlayson’s 25-year-old son, Kevin Yates, in 2011 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after a night of drinking and partying. Stephens, whose blood alcohol level was 0.235, was driving her Jeep northbound in the southbound lanes of the interstate and hit Yates head-on.

Hearing the women recount the tragic yet sobering story was the first stop for 1,300 Bartow County and Cartersville City schools eighth-graders attending the first-ever Destination Graduation: Bartow Teen Maze Wednesday and Thursday at Georgia Highlands College’s Cartersville campus.

The maze, a life-size interactive board game, was created to help teens learn about real-life consequences that could result from choices they make regarding alcohol, drugs, sexual activity and other risky behaviors that threaten their lives and health.

“Absolutely, it’s been a blast, it really has,” said Tina Grubbs, executive director of Bartow Collaborative, which facilitated the event with local EMS and health care professionals, social service agencies and volunteers. “It’s gone smoothly.”

The middle schoolers’ journey began outside, where they heard recordings of the 911 calls from the crash involving Stephens and Yates and the blaring sirens and flashing lights of emergency vehicles responding to a re-enactment of the crash scene with the actual van Yates was driving and Stephens’ Jeep.

Stephens and Finlayson — who formed 1N3, an alcohol prevention awareness program so named because one in three people are impacted by drunk driving —   described the events that changed both their lives forever.

“On that day, I made a choice to drink and drive,” Stephens said. “It was 100 percent preventable, but because of a choice that I made, I impacted countless amount of lives and took the life of an innocent person.”

Finlayson detailed her son’s numerous injuries, including brain injuries that caused the pressure in his brain to be 13 times more than it should’ve been, and on Aug. 1, 2011, she heard the words “no parent should ever have to hear, that he was brain-dead, and he was only functioning on the machine.”

“In that moment, my life turned upside down,” she said, noting he only lived for 32 hours after the crash. “... Nothing would ever be the same because of a choice that Tish made to drink and drive.”

Stephens, who suffered two broken legs, said she was supposed to be in Georgia, not Tennessee, and she had “no idea how I even got there.”
Police estimated she hit Yates at 80 mph without braking.

“That’s equivalent to hitting a brick wall at 135 mph because I used no brakes at all,” she said.

On Oct. 27, 2011, Stephens was charged with vehicular homicide by intoxication, reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon and several misdemeanor charges. The following April, she was sentenced to eight years on the first charge and six years on the second charge in a maximum-security prison.

She only served about two years, however, because Finlayson went to her parole hearing and spoke on her behalf, which had “never happened” at that prison, she said.

“I made a choice as well,” Finlayson said. “My choice was to forgive Tish for killing Kevin because I knew that I wanted to do something ... to influence what people thought about their choices.”

Stephens, who was released Nov. 13, 2013, described how her decision unfairly affected her sons, ages 13 and 11; cost her $25,000 in attorneys’ fees; gave her a prison record; took away her driving privileges until 2018; and put her on parole until 2020 and under state supervision until 2026.

But both women, who started 1N3 to change the way people think about their choices, actually have life sentences.

“My sentence will be up in 2026,” Stephens said. “That’s the sentence that the judge set for me. The one sentence that will never go away is knowing that I took the life of an innocent person.”

“My life sentence — never another day with Kevin,” Finlayson said. “... Choices matter.”

Once the presentation was finished, students broke up into groups to start the maze. 

At each stop, the teens didn’t get to choose what decisions they wanted to make regarding risky behaviors. Instead, they drew a scenario card that told them what their choice was, including situations involving drug and alcohol use, legal troubles, sexual activity and dating violence. 

Students then followed the path of consequences, which may have included the Emergency Room, Jail and Probation, Medicaid, Alcohol and Drug Treatment, Death, Child Support, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Pregnancy, Child Care and Getting a Job.

Since the paths were randomly drawn, no two students had the same experience, just like real life.

The goal of the national program was to make it to High School Graduation and avoid the consequences of unhealthy decisions. At the end of their 90-minute journey, they donned a cap and gown and received their diploma at a commencement ceremony.

South Central Middle School eighth-grader Ty Chapman, 14, said he enjoyed the maze.

“I thought the maze was actually pretty cool,” he said. “It’s like an adventure. You’re like living everything out. They teach you how to make better choices and stuff.”

On his pathway, Ty said he had to experience sex, go to rehab and “finally got to graduate.”

As the middle schoolers navigated their way through the maze, they increased their understanding of personal responsibility and learned how to resist peer pressure, how to make more effective life choices and how to plan for a successful future, according to Grubbs. 

Stations were staffed by 275 volunteers who played certain roles and presented the appropriate information for that path, and 45 different local agencies helped out with the event.  

Grubbs said a core group of 12 school system, public health, social service and emergency management officials began planning the massive three-day event, which included a community preview night Tuesday, in fall 2012.

The group visited different programs to get ideas, approached both school systems and made presentations to both superintendents to get the program approved, she said.

“So it took a long time so we could get to the point where it was, ‘OK, yes, we’re going to do this,’” she said, noting they began recruiting volunteers as soon as the school systems signed off on it.

Page last updated: May 20, 2015