Stop for a moment and listen
by The Press and Standard | July 19, 2018 5:00 pm
Last Updated: July 18, 2018 at 1:00 pm
“Life is real. It’s not a dress rehearsal. It’s not a video game. If you die, you don’t get to come back and try again. Or if you make a decision, you don’t get to go back and retry. Once you do it, it’s done and there’s no coming back.”
That’s part of the message that Chakieria Allen wants Colleton County’s young people to understand. The other part is that there is someone out there who genuinely cares and wants to listen.
Allen has a very real understanding of what problems today’s youth encounter in their everyday lives. She cares about young people and their troubles. At 20, she’s lived through divorce, sexual assault, an incurable disease, the death of close friends. Now she wants to help others wade through the quagmire of life by showing them the paths she’s followed to survive.
The 2015 Colleton County High graduate has formed a non-profit group, UNITY (United Neighbors In Touch with the Youth), to do just that — to give teens (and younger children) someone to turn to before they make a decision that’s going to change their young lives forever.
“That’s what a lot of the kids need. They feel like nobody’s listening, nobody cares. So they feel if they do something outrageous for attention, then maybe somebody will start paying them some kind of attention and will start listening to what they have to say,” she said. “If we were to just stop for a moment and just talk to them, see what’s going on in their minds. Some of it you can’t control — mental illness is real. But a lot if it, if you just stop and talk to them, that’s all they need. Really. That’s all they need.”
Most of the major problems today’s youth have — bullying and gangs, violence and death — are all related to the same thing: self esteem.
“Kids are susceptible to bullying because of self esteem. You think your family is the one who’s supposed to have your back the most when something happens. But in a lot of cases, the family is the one who’s tearing them down the most. So they feel like ‘If my family is tearing me down, nobody else out here is going to care. So whatever. That’s where a lot of the shutting down comes from.”
The same with gangs. “Personally, I think when they see a gang, they see a family. Everybody is clicked tight — you have my back. But it’s not a positive energy. If they can see that they have someone to support them, who’s willing to put in the energy to make sure they’re doing well, then maybe [they’ll see that while] the gang is nice in that you have family qualities, they’re engaged in the wrong types of things.’”
That’s UNITY’s mission: “Our goal is making sure everyone’s on that right path. Looking at our county alone, it’s crazy that we’ve buried so many young people. I think I tallied 28 in the last 5-6 years. We’re trying to get those kids away from the negative and pushing them more toward the positive, so the negative just cycles out over time and we’re having less gang violence and less bullying.
“With the gangs, they are looking for someone who is willing to accept them. They are looking for acceptance. They feel like ‘I’m not good enough for this group or that group, but hey, a gang said that I am.’ A lot of them will go where they feel that acceptance.
“Acceptance, self-esteem and being able to have somebody to talk to and have your back — that’s where the majority of it all stems from. And that’s something we can control. I feel if we were just to change that, everything else would start falling into place.
“No, it’s not going to be an overnight change. Yes, it’s going to take time. But you have to have the patience. You have to have the endurance to keep going. And yes, sometimes it’s going to get hard. You’re going to want to quit. You’re going to say it’s not worth it. But in the end, it really is.
“You have to look at the bigger picture. Sometimes you may not be able to reach a child, but a child that you’ve already reached may be able to. So by just reaching one, you’re probably reaching five, in reality,” Allen said.
And maybe by reaching those five, you can help keep them out of jail and on a path to give them a chance in life.
“It goes back to the realization that one decision can change everything. Everything that you’ve built can change in just that moment,” she said.
UNITY is trying to give kids the tools to make good decisions through a variety of programs from discussions with mentors and youth leaders to a camping/paint ball event planned this fall. “Just giving the community a way to bond together, from young to old, males and females. Just teaching everybody to work together. We’re geared toward supporting youth whether they want to go to college, into the workforce or into the military — trying to teach them to depend on each other, but also with us here to guide them and network them within the system to get better opportunities to succeed in getting where they want to go.
“There’s not much to do around here, so if you bring in a positive, they may be more engaged there instead of putting their time toward maybe a gang. As a child, I needed something to be engaged in. Just sitting and listening to somebody talking just wasn’t working. So if you get hands-on with them, they’re more willing to retain what you’re teaching them.
“College isn’t for everybody. As long as you’re doing something positive, you’re being that citizen that your little brother or sister can look up to, then you’re doing the right thing.”
“Bullying is at an all-time high right now. And suicide is running high. Or somebody is coming in and shooting up a school because they’ve been bullied. It’s ridiculous. It should never get there. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down,” Allen said.
“Even if you have it hard, it’s ok. Understand that you can go to people to talk who are willing to help you. And if you see somebody struggling, instead of trying to make them feel worse, try and see what you can do to help. You don’t have to help financially, but just be that person who they can open up to about things that they never talk about to anyone. That’s what a lot of kids need — someone they can open up to.
“Be that person you wish you had when you were younger. So now, every day I try to be a person that you can talk to without being judged. If you need something, even if I can’t get it, I’m going to go out there and try to find somebody that can help you,” she said.
“Kids feel like nobody’s listening, nobody cares. A lot of people are always smiling, but sometimes that’s the person who really needs help the most — the one that’s always happy and trying to help somebody. Sometimes you just need to stop and say, ‘Hey. Are you ok? What’s on your mind? What are you thinking about?’”
“It’s just simple things like that that they need. That’s all.
But you have to mean it. “If you pretend to care, these kids will see right through you and they’re not going to want to deal with you. But if you just take the time and actually show them you truly care — not just say it, but actually do it. They look for actions, not just words. Action is all they’re thinking about now. If you say one thing, but you’re doing something totally different, what you’re saying no longer matters. That’s how it was for me: you can say it all day long, but if you’re not doing it, I don’t believe you.
On death and suicide
The death of friends and classmates is another thing today’s youth have to face with increasing frequency — deaths from shootings, suicides or accidents.
Her freshman year in high school, Allen lost a friend/brother; her sophomore year, her best friend. “And it just kept going on and on,” she said.
“That pain is a pain that I’ve never felt, and I would never wish that kind of pain on anyone. Somebody that you’re used to seeing every day, you’re used to calling or texting when something crazy happens. The first person you go to. Then all of a sudden, no warning, they’re no longer there. If you want to talk to them, you’re going to a gravesite. That’s not fun. Or if you want a memory, you have to think about it, look at pictures, old videos. It’s not like you’re creating new memories. You’re living in the old ones. And that’s a pain that’s indescribable.
“I’m 20 going on 21 and I’ve already lost numerous friends. And it’s not cool. It’s not fun.”
This is something a lot of kids don’t understand — they don’t see the consequences of driving drunk or shooting someone. “But once you do it, it’s done. There’s no changing it,” she said. And that’s one of the things she strives to get youngsters to understand: some consequences of their actions can’t be fixed — ever.
On kids and families
Families are not perfect. Every family had its ups and downs. Allen’s parents, Charles and Tasheena Allen, are divorced, “so I know what it feels like to have your parents separated. I’ve dealt with that. It’s not fun, but you learn to work through it,” she said.
“You can’t let your circumstances define you, because if you do, a lot a people would be pretty messed up. But a lot of the people who have been through the worst are doing the best right now.
“I use my trials as motivation,” Allen said.
Her health has been another trial to deal with. In 2016, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. She thought she had a stomach bug, but it lasted nine days. She lost 35 pounds in less than two months. “Being a healthy person to going to that person was just scary. But I used it as motivation to get better. I thought ‘I can’t help anybody if I’m not helping myself right now,’” she said. Now the treatment is working and while she’ll never be cured, “I just don’t let it stop me.”
That’s a reason she decided to become a pharmacist after she graduates from USC Upstate in 2019. “Helping someone get better, that’s my thing. I started out in nursing, but had to change direction when I got sick. But that’s ok.”
Allen also worries about the younger children, not just teens. “Why is an eight-year-old committing suicide? Why does an eight-year-old feel like suicide is his best or only option? An eight-year-old should be worrying about what picture they’re coloring next or what new toy they want. They shouldn’t be worrying about ‘I don’t have the same sneakers like yours or my bookbag is not in as good a condition as yours, my hair doesn’t look like yours or my body doesn’t look like yours.’ That shouldn’t be something they’re worried about at all.
“A kid should be a kid, not trying to grow up so fast. Because once you get there, you’re wanting to be that child again where you don’t have the worries. So take time to grow up,” she said.
“A lot of kids think their parents don’t understand. They do. They’ve been there, done that. They don’t want you to have to deal with it. They’re trying to save you some trouble. On the other side, some parents don’t understand and the child does because they’re living it right now.”
Times have changed, and parents need to acknowledge that. “Technology, cyberbullying — there’re more tools for them to use now, so it’s different. It’s very different. Cell phones, social media. Social media is not a bad thing, but it can go either way. It’s all up to you and how you use it whether it’s a great tool or a horrible tool. It’s really up to you what you do. But once you put it on the internet, even if you delete it, it’s always going to be there. Think before you do, because once you do it, that’s it. That’s really it.”
Through UNITY, Allen has a lot of ideas for programs to help kids.
A couple of weeks ago, a crowd attended a UNITY-sponsored discussion on what to do about violence held at the library. This past weekend, UNITY organized a summer extravaganza and back-to-school day at the Rec Center.
She’s planning another discussion about violence, but this time adding sexual assault to the agenda. “I know that’s a hard topic to speak about. I was sexually assaulted my freshman year of college. It’s almost three years later, and I still remember the night to a T. But I’m trying to help females (and even males, because they can be sexually assaulted too) because it’s a traumatic event that’s always going to change you.”
UNITY’s programs are liquid in that topics can be added based on what the participants need at the moment. But it’s more than just talking. “We’re going to have fun. We’re working on a lot right now,” Allen said.
She’s hoping to organize a paintball/camping weekend this fall and is currently looking for a site where the kids can camp and hold paintball games.
All of UNITY’s activities, as well as membership applications, are available on the website www.unitedneighborsintouchwiththeyouth.com, as well as flyers, photos from events, contact information and biographies of the staff (which includes James Hall, co-director; Brianna Haynes, volunteer coordinator; Bria Dickerson, compliance director; Destiny Pearse, social media coordinator; Brittany Evans, program manager; and Tasheena Allen.) Donations to support the 501(c)3 non-profit can also be made on the website.
“It’s really been amazing. We said we weren’t going to expand for 3-5 years, but it’s really grown in less than a year,” she said. (UNITY started in December 2017.) “It’s a lot, working and going to school, but when you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t seem like a job. You don’t feel tired because it’s fun seeing the kids engaged, even at the panel discussion, and seeing their emotions. I love kids. I do. I’m not sure why, but it’s what I love to do. I love being around teenagers and younger kids, even working with special needs. I don’t have to get paid for it. I don’t care about that. As long as somebody is getting better and I know that I’ve reached somebody, that’s all that matters.”
(Allen can be reached at 843-217-2196, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram. “Any social media you have, you can call text or message me at any time. I don’t care what time it is. If you need somebody, if you really need to talk to somebody, I don’t mind. I honestly don’t mind.”)