Bullying is an issue that has gained increasing attention in recent years. One Iredell County group is working to maintain the attention on the issue and help with prevention and intervention solutions.

Aftershock Youth Empowerment (AYE) held a ribbon cutting at its new facility in October, but the nonprofit has been around longer, working on its mission of helping youth.

The organization was created in 2014. It has reached areas such as Greenville, South Carolina, but recently developed a strong hub in the Harmony area under the guidance of founder Shanika Turner.

Turner’s passion for helping address bullying is personal; she says she was a victim of bullying. She said she knows bullying is not only a classroom issue but can take place in the child’s home environment.

To take action, Turner hopes to address the issue through partnerships within and help from the community.

After moving back to Iredell County in October 2018, Turner met with Iredell-Statesville Schools representatives and created a partnership by year’s end.

The partnership is an informal non-contractual relationship that has benefited both parties, said Boen Nutting, director of communications and development at Iredell-Statesville Schools.

“We have a host of non-profit groups that work hard every day to assist students in Iredell County. We appreciate those agencies and the work they do. It is important that each and every one of us do what we can to impact youth in our communities,” said Brady Johnson, Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent.

Turner says working with the schools became a primary goal for her after she was informed a student died by suicide earlier in the year.

“That was pretty much a driving force to definitely move forward and to start getting out in the community and let parents know what we do and why we do it,” Turner said.

Turner began to put additional effort into letting others know about the program.

“We are working with the (Harmony) mayor and with some of the (Harmony) town council. Some of the things we have discussed (are) actually being that provider for community resources for families,” Turner said.

AYE offers more than bullying prevention services, but also resources such as a GED program to be able to assess the needs of families, Turner said.

AYE recently received a grant from the Statesville ABC board for $5,000.

“And with that grant funding, because we do bullying prevention and intervention services, one of the things that is really dear to our hearts are the students that are living in hotels and that are homeless,” Turner said. “So with that funding we will be gearing up and creating field trips and different fundraisers to be able to help those kids get out of that atmosphere as much as possible.”

Turner hopes to have an after-school program for those students to get out of the hotel for part of the day. Her organization is working on developing a partnership with Fifth Street Ministries to reach the children who live in the shelters.

Turner says she works directly with a number of schools in the county and is hoping to reach even more in the 2020-21 school year.

Some of the schools she currently works with include Harmony Elementary, North Iredell Middle School, North Iredell High School, Success Institute Charter School and Celeste Henkel Elementary School.

“The main thing is that when it comes to bullying prevention, it is not just an overnight solution,” Turner said. “The main thing is you have to get everyone speaking the same language and on the same page.”

For everyone to be on the same page there have to be conversations with the schools individually, she said.

“So our goal is to actually move those workshops and training to train more staff at schools — faculty and staff, parent workshops, community workshops, so everyone knows how to handle bullying situations, atmospheres that are conducive for bullying,” Turner said.

The workshops involve an open forum and discussion in order to be able to tackle the issues.

“Because every school atmosphere isn’t the same, you are not going to have the same solution for every school, so it is pretty much like customized solutions,” she said.

She says her group works closely with the principal and the guidance counselor at schools.

But sometimes a parent will speak up and reach out.

“For instance last year we had a student, his mom actually came in for a referral,” Turner said. “So we went to the school, we sat down and met with the guidance counselor and the principal and then we of course met with the student to pretty much first get their side of their story or their story.

“And after meeting with that student we go back with the guidance counselor and the principal and we speak with them and of course let them know what is going on.”

A lot of times Turner has found that students are more comfortable talking to her because she is not as familiar to them as family and the faculty or staff from the school.

“Sometimes they shy away because of embarrassment, because of shame — so to be able to be an unfamiliar face a lot of times these kids really open up and they talk,” Turner said. “And so with the information that we have received, we go back and we meet with the principal and the guidance counselor and we come up with a solution.”

The school will also meet with the aggressor — a term she prefers.

“What we do is pretty much keep that target excited about life,” Turner said.

AYE and the student who is in the situation will establish three goals — two academic and one life.

For example, a student may have the goal of reaching another grade level or raising a subject grade.

“We put some preventative measures in place and started working with him on that,” Turner said of the case involving this particular student. “[And] his life goal was to become a DJ so we actually found him a DJ who would mentor him.”

This gives the student something to which he or she can look forward to.

“If they have their goals and their action plans in place, you can keep them excited about life while we go behind doors and fix the problem that is going on with the bullying,” Turner said.

Turner and AYE hope to empower the students to have a voice and speak up for themselves.

“The main thing when it comes to bullying — no one can solve the problem but you, you have to be able to find a voice — your voice,” Turner said. “You have to be able to stand up for yourself.”

“So until you get that empowerment, until that child … they tap into their identity and their purpose and who they are and they understand who they are and they are okay with that — that is the solution.

“Empowerment, knowing your identity and purpose in life, ... that is what we work with the students with,” Turner said.

AYE’s target age is 10-14 because that is when bullying is most dominant. Turner said statistics indicate that most students who have been bullied, nine of 10 of those have experienced it prior to high school.

For students, the loudest voice in their ears is their peers and many students are just working to make it through that eight-hour stretch by fitting in, Turner said.

AYE hopes its prevention services helped to ease this number by being that extra voice in a child’s ear. Turner said that if they do their jobs right, that there wouldn’t be an extra step after prevention.

AYE has held workshops and training for churches and community organizations in addition to School Resource Officer training, which has been utilized this year by the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office, and an eight-hour training with the Statesville Police Department.

The nonprofit also has a partnership with the National Guard to send mentors to Harmony Elementary, Turner said.

AYE hopes to be able to expand on all of its services in the future.

“Our future goal is to actually be able to take that program out to more students instead of just being stationed here in our office,” Turner said. “We are looking to actually start providing our workshops and trainings to other after-school programs, youth groups; we do workshops and trainings for youth groups.”

AYE has found many schools need different things for students, such as clothes and mentors.

The nonprofit is looking for churches and other organization that would like to be a site for clothes for the children in the area that are in need.

The organization eventually hopes to have an office in to be able to cater to more of the county.

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