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Engaging Suffolk’s youth

About 25 teens and pre-teens gathered at a Whaleyville church last Saturday to talk about some tough issues.

The children at the Youth Summit at New Gospel Temple Church, who came from several churches in the area, learned about the dangers of bullying, gangs, prison and unprotected sex — and how to avoid getting caught in the traps.

“We want our young people to be around tomorrow,” said Rhonda Jones, a health educator with the Suffolk Health Department who talked to the group about sex. “The decisions you make today affect your life tomorrow.”

Though Jones was talking about unprotected sex, her words applied to the entire day’s themes. The group learned about how to stop bullies, how to avoid being involved in gangs and gang violence, and what prison and the quality of life after are like. Jones talked to the children about why they should wait to have sex, the dangers of unprotected sex and the pitfalls of young pregnancy.

“You may not be able to finish high school if you get pregnant,” Jones told the youngsters. “You may have contracted HIV.”

The youth summit, which also included speakers from the Suffolk Police Department, the Probation and Parole office and Eastern Virginia Medical School, was part of a larger trend of churches becoming more proactive in youth issues and steering them toward positive choices. According to some of the participants, it worked.

“I don’t want to get pregnant at the age I am now,” said Da’Tra Mayers, 11. “I want to wait until I’m older.”

Her friend Janaesha Watson, also 11, said she learned something from the event, too.

“I learned how not to get pregnant and to stay away from a gang,” Janaesha said. “I don’t want to get involved in that.”

Other churches in the area are planning similar events in coming weeks. The youth ministry at Greater Sweet Beulah Apostolic Church, 137 Maple St., has planned a health fair for April 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No registration is required.

“The young people are facing a lot more than what we faced coming up,” said Tameka Barnes, head of the youth ministry. “They have access to everything now. Though they have a lot more information than what we had, it’s not sinking in to them how important their health is.”

The fair will include HIV tests and blood pressure checks, as well as information on nutrition, high blood pressure, diabetes, sex and hygiene.

“We’re going to let them know what can happen if they’re having unprotected sex, what can happen if they’re not eating right,” Barnes said. “We’re taught from the Bible that ‘My people perish for lack of knowledge.’” (Hosea 4:6)

Barnes said the health fair is not just for kids. Anybody can come to take advantage of the services offered or get more information.

“We even extended invitations to the adults in our church,” Barnes said. “There’s no need in them thinking it’s just for the young kids.”

For more information on the Greater Sweet Beulah health fair, call 969-3384.