March 7, 2011

Ocracoke’s young people are saying goodbye to Teen Night


Last month, my 15-year-old son, Emmet, stormed in the door at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.

“How was it?” I asked.

“I was tricked!” he answered indignantly, while trying not to smile. “I thought we were going to watch a movie, but Susie made us do ballroom dancing! She made us trade partners and dance with everybody.”

With a little prodding, I got him to admit that he enjoyed the dancing. I knew he would. He likes everything Susie comes up with.

Twice a month for the past four years, Susie Kennedy has been hanging out with local teenagers for an Ocracoke Youth Center program simply called “Teen Night.” The free program has only one requirement – that participants are at least 13 years old.

Anywhere from six or seven kids to 20-some might show up at Teen Night. Twenty-one local teens were participants in the past year.

“Sometimes in the summer, we had the kids visiting friends and relatives and girls Emmet met on the Windfall. We never turned anyone away as long as they were 13. Everyone was welcome,” Susie said in a recent interview.

Susie serves on the volunteer board of the non-profit Ocracoke Youth Center and started volunteering her time as Teen Night assistant with OYC activities director Russ Chesson. When Russ left in 2007, Teen Night became Susie’s program, and since then she has donated countless hours of her time to provide creative, fun, and enriching activities for the island’s teens. Many of the memorable Teen Night scenarios came from Susie’s imagination, while other activities evolved from suggestions made by the kids.

“We’ve done role-playing and staged a mock wedding,” she said. “We held a formal dinner, made a music video, made a TV program and learned to play blackjack. Last summer we played kickball a lot, and we went to the Junction concert. We’ve had parades, scavenger hunts, and an egg-drop competition and been to the AA Jamboree. There’ve been bonfires and volleyball and game nights. We’ve played a lot of Cranium. And we’ve built universes.”

Then there was Viking night.

“We had a tug-of-war, and a soda drinking contest, and your team won by acquiring ribbons so we staged a battle where the kids were trying to steal each other’s ribbons,” Susie said.

Making the cardboard swords and shields was another part of the Viking fun.

“There are some great pictures from that night,” she said.

No one will soon forget gender exploration night. The boys and girls both enjoyed going in drag. Apparently, there are great pictures from that night, too.

Susie says she tries hard not to let the kids know what the night’s activity will be before the meeting.

“The kids really enjoy things that they have no idea they’ll like,” she said. “Like ballroom dancing – they grumbled at first and then they loved it. Some kids have told me they wished I’d taught them more steps!”

Teen Night has involved several lock-in sleepovers, and even trips off the island. The kids had fundraisers to help offset the costs of trips and paid part of the expense out of pocket. Over the years they’ve gone camping, seen the Avett Brothers in concert in Charlotte, been to the North Carolina State Fair, Carowinds, and Busch Gardens, and made many trips “up the beach” for movies, bowling, and miniature golf.

Susie recruits friends to help her at meetings and on trips – the Youth Center likes to have at least two adults at every program – and she enjoys working with other teen-friendly adults. Luke Harrington, Jonas Mace, and Dan Muldoon were all a big part of Teen Night in past years. Recently, Angela Gandee has been helping out, getting to know the kids and volunteering her time for the Teen Night activities.

Susie loves getting ideas from the kids and finding ways to make them work. And she lets them have fun with some of their crazy schemes.

“We had so much fun with drive-by caroling,” she said. “We weren’t doing anything wrong – Christmas caroling is nice for people! – but hiding in the van made it seem exciting and daring.

“I’m not uber-controlling,” she added. “I think of Teen Night as their time.  I’m just facilitating. If the kids ask, ‘Can we try this?’ my answer is generally ‘Yes!’”

Sadly, she recently had to tell them “No.”

“A few weeks ago, I had to tell them the Youth Center is closing, so no more OYC Teen Night,” she said.

The kids’ initial reaction surprised Susie.

“They were excited! They said, “We’ll have underground Teen Night! No rules! Trips without permission slips!”

Susie had to reel them in and explain that Teen Night is actually ending – soon. She plans to have meetings through April and then it’s over. The kids hope to have a dance party and maybe one more trip between now and then.

Susie says she never entertained the thought of continuing Teen Night without the backing of Ocracoke Youth Center. One good reason is liability, but even more important is the support she got from OYC Director Karen Lovejoy.

“Karen’s amazing and she knows so much about kids, about education, about what’s okay to try,” she said. “Most times I touched base with Karen and told her what I was planning for Teen Night, and she helped me figure out how it would work.”

Susie says she and Karen shared a similar understanding of what Teen Night should be.

“It’s not a school or church program,” Susie said. “It’s a place where the kids get to be teenagers and explore boundaries.”

Now she’s sad to be losing her Teen Night connection with the kids.

“This is such a great group of kids. It’s devastating to end Teen Night now. It’s different when I see them around in a not-Teen Night setting. They relate to me differently. It’s like we have this secret world where we meet up, do these crazy things, and then we go back to normal,” she said.

Susie’s the owner of Halo Hair Studio, the only salon on the island, and she’s an active member of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department. She served on the Ocracoke Child Care board for a year and a half, and has been on the Youth Center board since 2006.

“It’s been such a cool experience to get to do Teen Night, and I’ve learned so much from it,” she said. “I love Ocracoke because I got to do this.”

In Their Own Words: The Teen Night Kids Talk About Teen Night

Echo Bennink, junior:

The majority of my favorite past times have been with the teens and leaders of Teen Night. I'm sad to see the good times go, but am happy to know that the memories will be inside of my head forever. Teen Night had a huge impact on my life and I am grateful for that.

Maddie Payne, senior:

I like how Susie treated us like equals, helped us have tons of amazing times, and possibly learned a few things too. I'll miss Teen Night, and I know it meant a lot to many of us.

I don't think any of us will dress up as the opposite gender without thinking of Susie and the great times at Teen Night.

Wyatt Norris, freshman:

Teen Night was special to me because it let me try new things and do things I would have never gotten the chance to do, like the Busch Gardens trip and the ballroom dancing.

Andrew Tillett, freshman:

I agree with Wyatt. Without the mock wedding, I wouldn't have started dancing.

Emmet Temple, sophomore:

I thought that what made Teen Night so wonderful was the lack of limits tempered with just enough caution. One of the most repeated phrases was “Emmet, that’s a bad idea,” or “Don’t break your neck.” But the beauty of it was that we were allowed to go just that far, nearly to the point of danger and no further. From chasing the kickball up a tree to jumping contests with Chase, from being the best man at Bruce and Tina’s wedding, to the last big trip to Busch Gardens, these are experiences that have shaped me and memories that will make me smile.

William Gilbert, sophomore:

It was just a good time for us to do whatever we felt like doing.

Kade Nagakane, 8th grade:

I liked Teen Night because it gave us the chance to express ourselves and our unique individuality by interpreting it into a fun project or game. I don’t know what I would do if Teen Night wasn’t here. By the way, it needs to keep going because I haven’t gotten to go to Busch Gardens yet.

Molly Lovejoy, junior:

Teen Night’s been with me since I turned 13. I've been to lock-ins, on trips – Tryon Palace, Christmas Festival, Merchants Millpond, horseback riding, New Bern camping trip, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, adventures in Nags Head – and taken part in activities like "Gender Exploration" night, a mock wedding, making a vampire movie and music video, and so much more.
Russ opened the door for Teen Night years ago and made it into something really special and really fun for us, but Susie came in later and gave it the wings. My years with Teen Night have been positively unforgettable. They've helped me learn that I thrive out of my comfort zone through things like camping in the middle of nowhere, or playing the girl with the southern accent who gets eaten by a vampire, or not being embarrassed to try ballroom dancing in front of my friends. Susie made it about us: We said we wanted to build armor and swords out of cardboard and have a battle – we did it. We said we wanted to have a wedding –she baked a cake and got us a dress. We suggested driving halfway across the state to see a concert and a week later we had tickets.

I can't even begin to say what this specific program – as well as many others from the OYC – meant to me. I'm sad to see it go, but I believe the effect it has had on all of us – from the 20-year-old veterans to the 13-year-old newbies – will stick with us our whole lives.

Joe Chestnut, senior:

Teen Night gave Ocracoke youth an opportunity to learn to have fun in a safe environment. At Teen Night, we learned to accept everyone, and to be inclusive in activities. Teen Night helped to teach the participants to be respectful towards their peers.

Samantha Styron, 8th grade:

I thought teen night was special because it allowed me to try new things that I wouldn’t have done like the ballroom dancing.

Devynn Mager, senior:

I want to take this opportunity to thank Ms. Karen Lovejoy and to thank Ms. Susie Kennedy for all their efforts on behalf of all the teens on this Island. It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Teen Night sponsored by the Ocracoke Youth Center. I will miss Teen Night with my friends and with Susie. It was an incredible bonding time, filled with fun and laughter. It’s always been hard for me to socialize as I’m quite shy, but Susie created opportunity and experiences that were warm and fun-filled and gave me a place to get to know everyone on the Island.

Susie always had energy and ideas. We shared meals, we made masks, and we learned how to dance and boy did we dance! We watched movies together, played games, did scavenger hunts and even went to Busch Gardens! We had a place to go and something to do on an Island where those opportunities are few and far between for kids our age. We got to know one another and form lifelong friendships, for this I’ll be forever grateful. It was a unique experience and certainly one of the positive things about living on Ocracoke. I hope someday the future teens will get a chance like I had to experience this awesome opportunity, but sadly I don’t think that will be the case. For now, I will cherish the times we had together and remember the fun times we had. Thank you again for the memories everyone!

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