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U.S. DOE Back-to-School tour highlights prevention clubhouse in Dawsonville
United States Department of Education Assistant Secretary Frank Brogan talks to Next Generation Clubhouse members Joshua Bohn and James Ventresco about the clubhouse’s technology-based initiatives during a Sept. 18 stop in the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ 2019 Back-to-School tour. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of Education Frank Brogan completed his Georgia leg of the 2019 Back-to-School tour Sept. 18 with a stop at the Next Generation Clubhouse in Dawson County.

Brogan visited the prevention clubhouse to learn more about the success of after-school prevention programs and gather innovative ideas to bring back to Washington D.C. next week when the national tour concludes.

“It’s not only been fun, it’s been very illuminating,” said Brogan. “This is one of those unique programs that you have to look for to find and when you do you’re glad you did.”

Next Generation, also called NxTG, is one of three substance abuse prevention clubhouses in the state of Georgia that receives funding from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). The after-school clubhouse has been open and serving at-rick youth in Dawson County since 2013.

The idea for a prevention clubhouse, a safe and inviting environment for kids, is the brain child of Travis Fretwell, Director of the Office of Behavioral Health Prevention with DBHDD, who was on site to discuss the role of the clubhouse.

“It stemmed from an idea of membership. I really thought that if we could create an avenue for membership but make it an inviting situation that we could get kids to come back to services,” Fretwell said. “The idea was to create an environment that they wanted to come back to so that’s when we came up with the clubhouse concept – to create an atmosphere that would be fun.”

It was also important to Fretwell that each clubhouse adhered to the culture of its unique communities, by leaving the curriculum up to the directors and leaders of each clubhouse.

“In thinking about these programs, one of the things that I wanted to do is to ensure that each community can develop their own program, so to speak - so what’s impactful for the youth in your community,” Fretwell said. “For some communities, it’s all about soccer. They want to do soccer so they’re program is shaped around soccer. For some it’s entertainment, others its sports. Some they say it’s education and it’s robotics.”

For Next Generation, it’s a STEAM approach – focusing on technology as well as art to engage the kids, build their confidence and help create well-rounded citizens of the 21st century world.

“It builds success, self-esteem, their confidence and then they can go back to school and feel that they can try things, they can be reengaged because if we are reengaged in school, we’re lowering the risk of substance abuse in the future,” said NxTG Development Director Veronica Santiago-Johnston.

The clubhouse targets at-risk kids ages 12 to 17 in the community and uses the Botvin life skills model to teach prevention life skills and provide mentoring opportunities.

By the numbers, 88% of clubhouse participants live in poverty, 44% have a family history of substance abuse, 41% live in a single parent home or without either biological parent, 37% have a family history of mental health issues, 21% have a family history of domestic violence and 5% have a history of homelessness.

“Our kids have been in a lot of adult situations in their lives. They have parents with mental illness, serious substance abuse, rehab treatment, so they’re used to making decisions. So us telling them ‘don’t do this anymore’ doesn’t make sense. The idea is we give them the information they need to make choices. It is ultimately their choice, and we give them the skills so that when they’re in those situations in which someone may offer them a drink or may offer them a joint, they know what to do… and get themselves out of that situation,” Santiago-Johnston said.

Part of the curriculum is based around the demographics and needs of the kids, which the staff at Next Generation have found that having open discussions about the effects and consequences of substance abuse goes a lot farther than simply telling them ‘just say no.’

“We very openly talk about this. Gone are the days of saying ‘just say no.’ That’s over. So you have to come up with a new way. For us, with this culture, the new way is to talk about what a drug can do to you and talk about the teen brain and how it is so much different than the adult brain,” said NxTG Executive Director Bindy Auvermann.

In rural north Georgia, you abusing substances are doing so to self-medicate “because of the trauma and drama inwardly themselves and outwardly in their environment” according to Auvermann.

Kids in rural north Georgia are often faced with burdens at home which are what send them to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, Santiago-Johnston added.

“Our kids are not having parties just to get wasted. They’re smoking alone, they’re vaping alone, they’re using pain killers alone to take the edge off so that then they can interact because they’re depressed, because they’re anxious, because they’re worried, because they’re stressed, because they don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight,” Santiago-Johnston said.

One way in which the clubhouse addresses these concerns is through its Mindfulness program where the kids learn breathing techniques and coping mechanisms that they love.

“Mindfulness is more than meditation and breathing strategies,” Santiago-Johnston said. “It’s a moment. It gives them a moment to stop and to own their choices.”

Inside the clubhouse, education is often disguised as fun activities which can take the form of yoga, outdoor games and innovative projects that are driven by the kids, most of which are fueled by technology like 3D printers, robotics and circuit boards that keep the kids focused and engaged.

Through the prevention clubhouse programs in the state, Fretwell says he sees several positive impacts on the kids involved beyond creating a place that gives them a sense of belonging.

“We’ve seen education go up, their grades in school go up. In many cases in talking to parents at home, we’ve seen the environment there at home even be better as a result of this,” Fretwell said.  “The other huge increase for us is we’ve seen a decrease in some of the usage.”

Fretwell said he is excited about the concept of the U.S. Department of Education becoming interested in prevention clubhouse programs nationwide.

State Superintendent Dr. Richard Woods, who was also in attendance for Wednesday afternoon’s meeting, also sees the potential for the Georgia Department of Education to become more involved with programs like Next Generation.

“It’s given hope to these young kids. Some come from distressed houses, they face personal challenges and the intent is: let’s give them a chance at life,” Woods said. “No one has to be alone. For us, I know for myself, I’ve never seen someone say ‘no’ to a child and so I think this just shows what people with a vision and a mission can do.”

Woods said the visit gave him the idea of potentially sending GDOE staff to Dawsonville to see how the program could be replicated in other areas.

Brogan said visiting places like NxTG gives politicians the chance to talk about unique approaches and create change.

“Right now all over the country people are hungry for new ideas,” Brogan said. “They want to make change but a lot of times they’re not exactly sure what that change will actually look like so as we develop sort of a catalog of best practices and innovative idea and thinking, maybe we can eliminate time where people say ‘we want to make change but we don’t know what to do’ by creating places to go so they can see what’s out there and what people are doing.”

The biggest takeaways Brogan says he will be bringing back to Washington D.C. are how NxTG infuses the use of technology in its curriculum as well as the youth-driven aspect that has allowed the kids to be the creators of technology.

“I think the confidence they appear to be developing by creating these opportunities, concepts, ideas and seeing those ideas come to full flower is obviously helping to instill a sense of real confidence and independent thinking,” Brogan said.

NxTG believes that all youth should have equal access and opportunities to reach their full potential and is committed to providing opportunities for vulnerable youth in the community.

The clubhouse is open 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and is free for eligible families.

It is located at 462 Memory Lane Suite 160 in downtown Dawsonville.

Kids do not need to be in public school to join, and must be between the ages of 12 and 17.

For more information, call (706) 429-0110 or visit