Negatives to positives

Students honored for turning around their lives, charting a course for success

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By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

Sometimes turning a life around is matter of raising standards and upgrading expectations.

That’s the message University of Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl gave when he spoke to seniors and eighth graders on May 4 at the 10th annual Blount County Turnaround Achievement Awards at the Green Meadow Golf and Country Club.

The event was sponsored by Maryville attorneys Joe Costner and Steve Greene, and it recognized students from each middle and high school throughout Blount County who have turned their lives around during the previous year.

Those recognized had lives that had been filled with such obstacles as family turmoil, bad behavior, low academic performance, teen pregnancy and physical injury. Master of ceremonies Bob Kesling of the Vol Network congratulated the students. "All of you have taken negative things and turned them into positives," he said.

Jonivan Henry of Alcoa Middle School was recognized by principal Jim Kirk who told the audience that he knew not only Jonivan, but his mother, Kari Cunningham. Jonivan was a lot like his mother, Kirk said. His mother attended Alcoa Middle School, and was a quiet student. Like his mother, Jonivan didn’t speak much. "I got a sentence out of him by Christmas," Kirk said.

During his fifth grade year in 2003-2004 school year, Jonivan was hurt when a grease fire broke out in his family’s kitchen.

The youngster tried to put it out with a blanket, and his jersey caught fire. "He burned approximately half his body and ended up at Vanderbilt Medical Center. We didn’t know if he would live, and we were told he would never play sports again," Kirk said.

The principal said he went to the hospital to check on Jonivan. "There was no flesh on his face," Kirk said.

After five surgeries, Jonivan returned to sixth grade. "It was hard for him, but he didn’t act like it," he said.

Recovering from his injuries, Jonivan played football in the seventh grade, and, this year, he played and earned All-County honors.

Kirk said students often affect the lives of the teachers and principals who work with them. "There are special people who come across your life and change your life," Kirk said. ‘He has changed my life."

Alcoa High School senior Joey Suddereth was honored as a young man who had turned his life around as well. Football coach and assistant principal Gary Rankin praised Suddereth.

"Joey did some things I did. At one point he got on the wrong side of the railroad tracks," Rankin said. "Who hasn’t done that?"

Rankin said that in addition to playing on the football team, Suddereth has become active in church. "I know he looks big and bad, but he’s a big teddy bear," Rankin said. "I’m proud of him."

Rankin said Suddereth planned to attend East Tennessee State University and train to become a teacher. Suddereth recognized his mom and other relatives who showed for the breakfast, even a cousin who came after working third shift. He then drew a laugh from the audience. "I want to thank my mom for getting us here, safely, but late," he said.

Travis Sauls from Carpenters Middle School was introduced by teacher Kathy Hunt. Each fall teachers look to see who are going to be the trouble or problem students, Hunt said. It was expected that Travis would be one of those students, but, said Hunt, she was pleasantly surprised.

"Travis has become one of my ‘go-to’ guys. He has been through tragedy. He lost his mother, and his grandparents raised him," she said.

Travis, 15, said he enjoyed the breakfast and the recognition. It wasn’t too long ago he said he was getting in trouble. "I got in fights and called people names," he said.

He was sent to the county’s alternative school at Everett Learning Opportunity Center. The 15-year-old said he knew that wasn’t the path in life he wanted to take.

"I told myself when I got to the eighth grade, I was going to turn myself around," he said. "I was tired of getting into trouble."

Brandi Cooper from Eagleton Middle School was recognized by teacher Tricia Pearson. Brandi managed to turn her life around and has improved in her academics and behavior, Pearson said.

Brandi faced turmoil in her life as she often went back and forth between her mother who lived in Rockford and her father who lived in Seymour. When she returned to her mother and started going to Eagleton Middle School, she made a change for the better. "Her change in attitude affected all areas of her life," Pearson said. "She has not gotten into trouble. Brandi is a mature young lady who has developed leadership skills."’

Krysta Blevins from Heritage Middle School was introduced by English teacher Marie Richardson. Krysta has been a student at the school for three years and has overcome many difficulties, Richardson said.

Richardson said Krysta has always worked to keep up her grades. "I will end by saying not only has she become a very productive student at Heritage Middle, but a very good productive citizen for this community."

Whitney Hansford from Heritage High School was introduced by teacher Debbie Ashburn. Whitney was a problem student, often didn’t do her work, would sleep in class and announced her pregnancy to her fellow students, Ashburn recalled. It was in having her baby that her life changed, and she started wanting better for herself, said Ashburn. When she returned to class, she was a new person. "I was dealing with a whole new person," Ashburn said. ‘Whitney is becoming a leader in our class," she said.

Whitney was appreciative of the influence her child had on her. "I want to thank my son who is with me," she said. "I want to thank my family and the folks at Heritage for not giving up on me."

Maryville Middle School student Brieana Kepley was honored and teacher Denise Vogado introduced her. "There never was a question as to whether Brieana was capable. The question wasn’t could she, but would she," Vogado said. "She was a diamond in the rough."

It was in the fall of this past school year that Vogado noticed that Brieana had changed. "I noted a smile on her face. She spoke to me without me speaking to her first," the teacher said. "Several teachers mentioned they noticed a change in her."

Brieana talked about how her life turned around for her. "In eighth grade, I started doing my work and really wanted to turn it around. I wanted to get in the ninth grade," she said.

Brieana said she was troubled for a while before choosing to change. "I used to have a big problem with my attitude," she said. "I said, ‘I’m going to do better.’ It has gotten easier. Ms. Vogado promised me, ‘If you try harder, you can get that A’."

Maryville High School teacher Amanda Russell recognized Jennifer Kitts. Being on the Maryville High School cheerleading squad helped Kitts get her priorities in order and also made a difference in the team.

"It’s impossible to imagine our cheerleading program the last two years without her," Russell said.

Kitts said she did competitive cheerleading outside the school and then decided she wanted to try out for the Maryville High
School team. "That kept me on a straight path," she said.

William Blount Middle School student Robert Breeden was introduced by guidance counselor Carol Witt. "Robbie acted on impulse but was able to develop self-control," Witt said.

Robbie’s self-control helped him become more sociable. "The old saying is that success breeds success," Witt said. "As he became stronger socially, he became stronger academically."

Ashlee Karns from William Blount High School was recognized by teacher Doug Stokes. Ashlee came to William Blount High School, and Stokes had her in class when she was a freshman. "She came in and was very quiet and very reserved," Stokes said.

Stokes said Ashlee was a student with stubborn behavior problems. She was slowly introduced to mainstream classes such as math and English and became so involved in her classes; she would often suggest ways to make the curriculum
better. "She became, to a point, so outgoing, it was hard to contain her," he said. "She got to the point where she saw there was a better way to get things she wanted by asking or working with the teacher as opposed to be stubborn."

Program co-sponsor Steve Greene said the event recognizes students who might not get publicity any other way. "There are some kids who don’t get recognized for anything but the bad they do," he said.

Pearl spoke of the power of a changed attitude and upgraded expectations, which fit well with the elements of the students’ stories. Pearl said there are similarities and differences between what his team at UT had to do to turn around their fortunes as a basketball team and what students have to do to turn around their lives. "Turning around a basketball program is a lot different than turning around a life," he said.

Pearl said individuals have to focus themselves on doing everything possible for success. When Pearl came to UT, he realized the players weren’t setting their goals high enough. "Do we deserve victory?" he said. "At Tennessee, our team wasn’t thinking about championships or beating Kentucky, it was just about being competitive. We had to set the bar higher."

Another area where some players weren’t setting stringent enough goals was academically. Pearl started pushing the players to set and achieve higher goals regarding their grades. "Our team grade point average was 2.0 two years ago, and now it’s 3.0," he said.

Pearl said he wanted the students at the Turnaround breakfast to be confident in themselves, even if no one else was. He referred back to what his team’s mentality was when he took over the program.

"My bunch wasn’t confident. They were focusing on what we couldn’t do," he said. "We had positives that they had lost sight of."

Pearl advised the students to focus on what they are good at doing. "Yes, we work on weaknesses," he said. "Often people
focus on all the areas in their life where they aren’t very good."

Pearl said hard work breeds confidence. "Most of the (college) coaches are better players than I was, but they don’t work harder than I do," Pearl said. "That gives my players confidence. There’s no better way to earn confidence than hard work."

Pearl said the students needed to remember that whether they realized it or not, there were people who cared about them and would be disappointed if they didn’t succeed. Pearl said the students should remember to keep working and believe in themselves, even when others don’t.

Referring to a controversy in his coaching life, Pearl told the students, " I just believed in myself. You’re here because you did the same thing."

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