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Braxton Austin-Cook, Ramekio Rachel, Malachi Shavers and Heaven Parkman participate in improvement activities provided by Link@TheY, which was formed last year to build students up academically, physically, socially and spiritually. (Contributed photo)

North Georgia Community YMCA is celebrating the successful first year of its Link@TheY program.

After starting with only seven students last October, the program has grown to impact the lives of 37 kids ages 11-17. This school year, the Y's staff changed up the program by reaching out primarily to middle school-aged children, as opposed to students who are heading to or already in high school.

The goal of the free after-school program is to support at-risk teens academically, physically and socially.

Over the last year, YMCA staff and volunteers achieved the academic portion of that goal by providing one-on-one tutoring with the students, helping them work through tough subjects or homework material while continually monitoring their grades.

Students who stuck with the program until the end saw, on average, a 12 percent increase in their overall grades, said John Donahoo, executive director of the North Georgia YMCA. During that time, teachers also saw a spike in these students' classroom attendance, with the average jumping from 79 percent at the beginning of the school year to 93 percent by the end.

To help build up the students physically and mentally, the teens got a chance to take part in activities like karate and art, with each student's schedule personalized based on his or her achievement level and individual goals.

"It really is a link," Donahoo said of the overall program. "We're trying to link kids and their families to different avenues, to different outlets, to different opportunities and just different experiences, but also link them to positive role models with our volunteers and staff that we have."

While that list of role models includes officers from the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office, which partners with the local YMCA, it also extends to members of the community who have taken the time to show they care.

Donahoo said he saw the students' behavior become more friendly and thankful toward the bus drivers who ensure safe transport home each night, once they learned that they were volunteers from First Baptist Church of Fort Oglethorpe who willingly gave of their time. He said he also witnessed the students spread that appreciation to the community members and groups that drop by the center to donate food for the "family dinner" the kids partake in every night before they head home.

"Before, I think they were a little bit taking it for granted," Donahoo admitted. "But they're opening up more, and that gives us the ability to talk more about behaviors that are appropriate or maybe even inappropriate in a social setting."

Opportunities like these, as well as other support systems like the group therapy provided for the kids, have led to an overall improvement in behavior for many of the students, Donahoo said. Many have seen a reduction in the number of times they are sent to the principal's office for disciplinary measures, he added.

Students receive an invite by a recommendation from the school system, and the program is already at capacity with a waiting list. But Donahoo said he wants the community to know that the need for programs that reach out to troubled youth is not being overlooked.

"The school system leaders and people like that know about this program but the average citizen probably thinks that this need is out there that is maybe not being met," he said. "So we'd like people to know about it ... and we'd like to be a place these kids want to be a part of."

Email Myron Madden at mmadden@timesfreepress.com.

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