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Forming Powerful New Bonds at Chain Reaction

By David Boegaard

Remember what it was like to be a teenager? Too young to get real responsibilities, too curious to do nothing, too energized to just sit around and read. It's a time when much of a person's future is formed. When opportunities are lacking, teens often take their curiosity and energy and channel it into mischief. Summers can be especially troublesome, when parents have to work but teens are out of school.

But teenagers in Pensacola, Florida have Chain Reaction, a teen leadership institute that focuses on character education and learning skills through volunteer work. With an incredible support team and encouragement to lead projects that improve the problems that concern them, Chain Reaction (CR) is the flame that actualizes energized teens into a better future and a stronger community. By teaching leadership, supporting self-driven initiatives, and guiding young people into a habit of resiliency when facing an unpredictable future.

Chain Reaction got its start as an off-shoot of local Promise Alliance, a group founded in 1997 by former General Colin Powell. When Promise Alliance dissolved in 2003, CR set off on its own path. Since then, CR has become the region's most popular hub for teen volunteering.

The name is great. But the people at Chain Reaction ensure that the organization embodies the name. CR is about human chemistry, says Kristin Fairchild, CR's Executive Director. "It is a chemistry of connection and camaraderie. Of passion and purpose. And when all these elements combine with a daring curiosity and fervor, true transformation occurs."

For these reactions to take place, CR makes itself a sort of laboratory, and the teens are not only the chemicals engaging in the reaction, they are also the chemists, experimenting with new approaches to the problems they perceive. The teens at CR are "chemists, applying their inquisitiveness and imagination to create new compounds, new combinations of ideas, skills, and talents," says Fairchild. "Armed with an adventurous spirit and a thirst for impacting change, we empower our teens to experiment, to grow and ultimately, to thrive."

So how does Chain Reaction work it's magic? Through a combination of freedom and organic responsibility. First, teen members of the program have access to the center, which is open all day during the summers, and from school's end until evening during the school year. "To get the most of out of their membership," says Fairchild, "CR teens are asked to complete the following: attend new member orientation, attend one quarterly membership meeting, participate in one service project for at least six weeks, complete one leadership course, and complete a work resume throughout the year."

Chain Reaction provides teens with a lot of freedom. But the culture of CR, and the support of the CR staff, means that freedom often becomes leadership which blossoms into responsibility. "We challenge young minds to put their passions to work and build the emotional fortitude necessary to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives," says Fairchild. By taking challenges, CR teens learn about themselves and their communities.

But not every challenge will lead to success. Chain Reaction recognizes that failure is an essential lesson life, if handled well. "Here, teens learn to embrace their signature strengths as an arsenal of tools to not only meet life's challenges head-on, but as inspiration to keep moving forward: to turn set-backs? into come-backs," notes Fairchild. "They learn not just how to be leaders, but how to be resilient."

One of the programs Chain Reaction uses to bring teens along to a new view of things is the Service Rush program, a leadership course that's a part of the service learning program. The program is based on the idea that teens often fall into risky behavior because they are looking for a "rush." With Service Rush, CR demonstrates to teens that there are better ways. "There is no better feeling than when you've truly made a change in a person, your community, or the world," says Fairchild. "That service high, unlike negative influences, lasts forever."

The whole Service Rush program is about the enduring joy of working creating goals and following them to the benefit of many. "The course includes service project logistics, project vision, creating a project timeline, reflection and tangibly tracking results through a work resume." By introducing teens to constructive fun and genuinely empowering them, the Service Rush program hopes to change their lives.

And Chain Reaction has changed lives. They keep good records of their impact, and can point to the hundreds of stories, notes, parents' letters, and successful college and job applications. "Teens were helped to step out of their comfort zone to apply to colleges that changed their lives, teens with little self-confidence turned into leaders of their college, and teens who excelled academically but worked themselves to death realized that they didn't have to be perfect and lowered their stress as a result," says Fairchild with deserved pride. "We taught teens to enjoy life and the rollercoaster it can be."

Chain Reaction is an incredible program for Pensacola teens, whatever path they take. "Teenagers are trying to find their identity, trying to spread their wings," says Fairchild. "Chain Reaction (CR) provides service activities to practice good decision making skills within a safe and fun environment." By starting with acceptance, CR lets teens be the best they can be, Fairchild suggests. "The CR environments encourages teens, loves them for who they are, and motivates them to make an impact beyond themselves."

Chain Reaction is open for enrollment for high school age kids of all interests and backgrounds. They only accept applications for membership from April through August of each year, so sign up now.

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