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Local nonprofit Teens Act offers guidance, motivation for high school students

By Harrison Epstein - | Nov 23, 2022
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Teens Act Executive Director Emmett Rock, left, teaches a lesson on college life at Timpview High School on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Provo. At the white board, assisting the lesson, is Teens Act volunteer and BYU student Penny Daurio.
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Teens Act students participate in a lesson on college life at Timpview High School on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Provo.
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Penny Daurio, Teens Act volunteer and BYU student, helps Christopher Vazquez during a lesson on college life at Timpview High School on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Provo.

As Timpview High School students come into the classroom, some quietly walk to their desks and others poke fun at Emmett Rock, sitting at the front of the room and preparing the day’s lessons.

Rock is executive director of Teens Act, a Provo-based nonprofit that seeks “to empower underserved students to graduate from high school and go on to higher education,” according to their mission statement.

The organization was first founded in 2007 by Dayan Bernal, then a Brigham Young University student looking to create a college preparation course for at-risk Hispanic students.

In the 15 years since, the program has expanded into multiple high schools in the Provo City School District and partnered with BYU, Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley University, United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs and various financial donors.

On a Thursday in Timpview, however, it was not about a web of instructors and board members working throughout the community. It was Rock and Penny Daurio, a BYU student volunteering with the organization, giving a lesson on college and what the students expect about higher education now and could expect in the future.

Christopher Vazquez, a junior at THS, has been with Teens Act since he was 13 and raves about the difference it made for him.

“Back then I had a lot of trouble, and this organization helped me grow and just, like, made me see where I want to go,” Vazquez said. “It’s made me see a lot more different opportunities I can take, and it’s just helped me grow more.”

The classes are designed for students who may be dealing with low motivation or aren’t having the academic success they’re hoping for, according to Rock. Around 60 students participate in Teens Act classes between Timpview and Provo high schools.

“We try to make up the difference with them,” Rock said. “We help them see that they can do it, we try to help them bring up that motivation, try to get that desire to want to do well and then, hopefully on their own once we’re not in the class, they do those things. So we hope they go home and actually do homework and that they talk with their family and that they talk with friends in a positive way.”

Motivation is the key for Teens Act students, and all students, to maintain focus on school.

Rock mentioned Vazquez as a student who found “his reason” to rededicate himself by improving his grades and finding an after-school job.

“As soon as they get that (reason) with them, it’s really hands-on, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s make some goals, let’s make a plan to reach those goals, let’s get this homework done, let’s go talk to these teachers, let’s go get you some job applications,’ whatever it is,” Rock said. “We have to figure out what their reason is first, otherwise there’s just no desire that’s ever gonna get them to do those things.”

Vazquez mentioned that he didn’t always care about graduating from high school, but his time with Teens Act now has him focused on applying for college and committing to recreational activities.

Motivating high school students to prepare for the world beyond high school is reflected in every lesson, including the college life discussion. For it, students were asked what they thought college was like — listing things like studying, homework, having a job and dealing with public transportation.

From there, the students were encouraged to go on the campus life webpages of Utah universities and find other facets of life. The discussion then turned to extracurricular activities like rock climbing and rodeo along with social events and outdoor recreation options.

After the student success lesson, students are given time to work on homework with the volunteers available as tutors and to answer questions. They’re also given a space to be comfortable, talk with one another and build bonds.

“I think it for sure adds, like, another level to the education. You feel like you want to pay attention, you feel connected,” Vazquez said. “It’s just a different level of connection and it feels just more genuine.”

Rock started with Teens Act when he was a BYU student, through Y-Serve, and has since become the executive director, with the personal stipulation he could still teach classes — “This is my favorite part, just being in the classroom with the kids.” That’s where he finds fulfillment and gets a chance to really make a difference, even if the particular lesson is a tough one.

One early class is focused on evaluating cost of living. Students suggest the pay for what they think “a good-paying job is,” Rock said, before the group breaks down that pay compared to the costs of rent, food and other regular expenses.

For some, he mentioned, the lesson is a wake-up call. For others, it’s just a chance to be a member of a community and contributor to the world around them. “I always thought the ‘why’ for them was gonna be things like, ‘I need to make money so that I can have a sustainable life, so I can give back to my parents or give back to friends.’ I just thought it would be more temporal things,” Rock said. “For some of them, I was really pleasantly surprised it was gonna be, ‘I want to improve to be a better person, to try to make a difference in the world,’ which I think is pretty cool.”

The program has previously worked with middle schools, helping younger students, but they are focusing on high schools now to make a more immediate impact, as many of the group’s goals involve graduating from high school and looking to life beyond it.

Teens Act also does occasional home visits along with extracurricular activities and tutoring. A host of volunteer opportunities are available at http://teensact.org/ along with a way to donate to the program. Donations are used for supplies, activities and providing stipends to mentors.

“The best way that someone can help is donate to our organization so we can use funds to meet the needs of our students,” Rock said.

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