Approximately 150 students from all over Ohio and even from outside the state attended a retreat held by Nordonia High School Teen Institute's Youth Staff Feb. 24 to 26 at Hiram House Camp in Chagrin Falls.

TI advisor Regina Christy said this was the largest retreat the students have held since it's inception in 19 years. It was also the first time the TI received funding for the program from Summit County ADM Board, which awarded a grant of more than $18,000.

Christy said the grant was a wonderful surprise, and a huge help.

"I applied for it but I almost fell over when we got the letter," she said. "One of the things I said I wanted to do was reduce student fees for Summit County students and see the student staff who plan the event go for free."

She said in the past fees for the retreat were $99 per student and this year fees were cut in half to $50 for high school students in Summit County because of the grant money. The cost was $25 for Junior Teen Institute -- which are middle school age -- and PANDA which is new to Lee Eaton students this year. Christy said there were 49 Nordonia High School students and 11 JTI, and two Lee Eaton students attended. JTI and PANDA students were only permitted to attend during Saturday's events and at least one presentation given on suicide prevention was for high school students only.

Aside from reduced fees, Christy said she attributes the high attendance to the enthusiasm of the students.

"I think it was the students talking about what a great experience it is," she said.

Zach Miley, Prevention Specialist for the Community Health Center and Summit County Teen Institute Coordinator said those who attended "are students who care about their school and community having a drug free culture and spreading this message to their peers from all over the state."

Students attend to get trained in leadership skills as well as prevention tactics to take back to their schools and communities.

This year's theme, chosen by the student staff was "Rise Up," modeled after the Maya Angelou quote "Still like air I rise."

Talia Naylor, a junior, said the student staff chose the theme during a conference in Columbus.

Another theme throughout the retreat is "We are the majority" because statistics show that drug-free students are in fact the majority, according to Junior Jackie Wendel.

"It's difficult to stay positive sometimes when you are surrounded by media saying all these teens are doing drugs and drinking, but in reality we are the majority," Wendel said. "You shouldn't feel left out for being in the majority and doing something positive for yourself, for people around you, and for the future of everyone else because you are the future."

Stress and mental health was another big topic for the TI retreat. Junior Delaney Monroe said a presentation she was a part of included a game show, and a workshop during which students were given a topic and had to perform a skit based on the topic. An example she gave was anorexia, and having to talk to a friend to help them through it.

Students weren't the only presenters, as there were some adult presentations including professional speaker and motivational comedian Kevin Wanzer who has appeared on The David Letterman Show. He has also addressed the United Nations and spoke at the White House, according to a press release for Wanzer. He presented to attendees about diversity and aspects of identity.

In addition to the activities, students were broken up into "family groups" for the weekend which the students said was a great way to get close to others quickly.

Freshman Freddie Krempec said being a part of the family group was one of the best parts of the weekend because "you can talk to them about anything you want and share anything you want."

Wendel said it was her first time being a head of a family group, but called the experience "other worldly."

"You form close relationships really quick and it is like you have a family away from your family," she said.

Junior Jake Vetrovsky agreed.

"After everyone got to know each other in the family group, everybody really started trusting each other," he said. "It's an experience that makes you a better person."

Naylor said "You are part of something bigger than yourself. We all joke around and have our cliques and everything but you get there and it's like one big community. You talk to people like you have known them for years."

One thing the students all seemed to agree on was their faith in the leadership including Christy, Miley and Dr. Deb Wallace, the district's community intervention coordinator, and a Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor.

"We have the best leaders," said Junior Delaney Monroe. "We are a youth-led group but we are also guided and we have the best advisors. They are so invested in us and every youth they come in contact with. They are the reason this group stays alive."

The next big event for TI is the upcoming March 17 Night of the Starts talent show. The talent show is a fundraiser for TI, and the students put on the show.

Briana Barker: 330-541-9432