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A scene from the teen-created film 'A Better Place'
Photo courtesy of Project AWARE

I lost my teen years to drugs and alcohol. As a child, I had so much energy, so much potential, so much caring but all of it was crushed beneath the weight of confusion, lack of support and burdens no child should have to face. With no creative outlets and, in my mind, only one unhealthy way to relate to the world, I shut down.

But I survived. Now in long-term recovery, supporting teens as part of Project AWARE, a youth empowerment program based in Maine, is my way of offering young people healthy choices I did not have. Our organization and others like it make it possible for teens to tell stories through film in a powerful way that makes a difference. The creative and social process changes their lives. It also provides a learning environment for marketable skills such as public speaking, creative thinking, writing, movie production, and teamwork.

MORE: Check out TIME’s cover story on Teen Depression and Anxiety: The Kids Are Not Alright.

Adolescents have an immense amount of energy and creativity they need to express. It is a part of evolution for teenagers to push the edges. That is where innovation and new ideas emerge. When youth are given healthy channels and support, amazing things happen. When they are left out of healthy opportunities that energy can get lost in sad, often tragic directions.

That’s where programs like Project AWARE can change lives by offering teenagers a supportive, non-judgmental community that fosters creativity and collaboration. Our projects have involved hundreds of teenagers directly as producers, writers, directors, cast and crew. Overall, Project AWARE youth have created over 20 PSAs and 12 short movies about issues they have faced including bullying, self-harm, suicide, anxiety, depression, opiates, underage drinking and more. Thousands attend premieres, presentations and workshops. And tens of thousands view the youth-created high-quality videos. (You can see some of these youth-created movies here)

The films we do also help adults understand that young people experience hardship, stress and anxiety; and bad choices often happen as a result. Besides the fact that there are adolescent hormones to deal with there’s also unstable family situations, chemical imbalances, unhealthy food intake, difficult relationships, stress at school, and so much more.

Young people who understand the issues that are affecting them tell powerful real-life stories. Faith-Ann Bishop, now 20 and one of the subjects of TIME’s recent cover story on anxiety and depression, wrote and directed movies for Project AWARE as a high school student in Maine. She based them on her experiences with self-harm, and depression / anxiety. And there’s Ema, who shared her story through a movie about family troubles and how that impacted a young woman’s life; middle school age youth who created PSAs and movies on bullying; and a group of incarcerated young people who created the movie Hooked on teen heroin use.

Project AWARE has some limited ability to consult with your community as you develop youth empowerment programs. There are many other organizations like ours around the country (your local YMCA can be a good place to start), and our hope is that caring adults and communities find a way to support these initiatives in their own communities so that more kids are able to access them.

In addition, the Search Institute offers programs for teachers, counselors and other education professionals that help identify specific skills, interests or passions that motivate youth and give them a sense of purpose, focus, and future orientation.

These skills and experiences, such as positive adult relationships, services to others, and creative activities help children grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. The organization has documented 40 of these assets through research and data collection that included millions of young people.

Parents anywhere in the U.S. or Canada can work together to bring Challenge Day to their communities. This life-changing program helps people learn to connect through powerful school-based activities such as the day-long, interactive Challenge Day program which provides teens and adults with tools to tear down the walls of separation, and inspires participants to live, study, and work in an encouraging environment of acceptance, love, and respect. Their programs inspire youth and communities to “Be the Change” they wish to see in the world, and challenge others to do the same.

Supporting our youth in having a voice and being heard works. Young people in our communities are ready to lead and raise awareness from their perspective and in their voice about the issues they think are important. Let’s take advantage of this amazing, powerful resource.

You can connect with us at where you can download a free “Youth Empowerment Workshop Handbook.”

Carl Lakari is the co-founder of Project AWARE. This story was written with the contributions of Project AWARE teens Nadia Schmid Lakari, Ryan Abdul , and adult Co-Founder Katey Branch.

MORE: Teen Depression and Anxiety: How Parents Can Help

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