Choices teenagers make can have life-long effects, and a community effort called Teen Maze encourages them to think before they act.
Disastrous outcomes including prison, vehicle wrecks and even death are dramatized in the maze with the help of actual first responders and over 175 volunteers from the four Northwest Georgia counties the program serves.
"The whole maze is about choices," said Lynn Brown, a coordinator with Georgia Family Connection, the state's family and community agency that organizes the annual event. "Choices matter."
Over three days, about 2,000 students from Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia navigate the maze. This year's maze was led by Catoosa County and held at the Colonnade in Ringgold this week.
Brown said this is the maze's 10th year, and the maze has evolved over the years based on new issues teenagers must navigate. Potential obstacles like social media, vaping and human trafficking are some of the issues now included in the maze, she said in a phone call.
Opportunities for mental health treatment are also provided by the maze.
In groups of about 10, students learn how to identify mental health issues in themselves and their peers — and where they can go for help. After their experience in the maze, Brown said several students asked organizers for help with their mental health.
Brown said she received several phone calls from parents inquiring about what their children would be taught in the Teen Maze. She said the program focuses on disastrous outcomes of bad choices and lets students consider their own precautions.
Along with the various scenes, Atlanta-based motivational speaker Chris Sandy shares his story.
In 2000, Sandy's drunk driving wreck ended the lives of two people and left him needing a wheelchair for life. Through his ministry, Enduring Regret, Brown said Sandy tries to help students avoid the careless decisions that can bring so much heartache.
In one powerful scene, Catoosa County Commissioner Vanita Hullander said a vehicle wreck is depicted.
It's a complete reenactment, Hullander said in a phone call, with fire, police and ambulance vehicles responding. Actors feign death and bloody injury while a grieving mother wails. As the first responders do their best to save the injured, she said the drunk driver responsible for all the misery is handcuffed and taken into custody.
The maze also reproduces a hospital scene and a funeral scene, she said.
"It's whatever you can do to get through to these kids and make them realize the consequences of choice," Hullander said of the dramatic scenes depicted. "It's not all fun and games."
Over 20 government agencies, churches and private companies collaborate to organize the maze and fund its $25,000 annual budget and feed the volunteers lunch.
Next year, Brown said organizers are planning a community night so people of all ages can navigate the Teen Maze.
"Because it's a very powerful thing for people to hear," Brown said. "Teens just don't have issues, we have adults that have issues."