Licensed professional counselor Teneka Gerido competes with the violent streets of Savannah. The street offers young people drugs, money and fast living. “Miss G” offers them field trips, free meals, mental counseling and a refuge from fast dying.
It’s not a choice that a lot of young people get. In my cul-de-sac, Atari childhood in Florida, no one came to me with the bad stuff. In places like East and West Savannah, impoverished enclaves that Gerido calls “Little Beirut,” no one has the good stuff.
“Sometimes I have to sit in my car and just decompress before I go into my home with my family,” says the program manager of an awesome arm of Gateway Behavioral Health called the Savannah Clubhouse. “Because some of the stories are unbelievable.”
Like the family of nine living in a home with no refrigerator. Like the domestic and sex abuse. Gerido hears it all and yet comes to work every day with the conviction that, because of what she does, she will make a small dent in our youth drug use epidemic.
She takes kids to Stone Mountain, Splash in the Boro, the Georgia Ports and Savannah Tech. She offers them yoga, family outreach, gardening and counseling. She teaches them how to apply street skills – like hustle and toughness – to ending bad habits.
“A lot of time the kids have the skills but nobody tells them that you can take what you do on the street, change the product, and you can make yourself successful in life,” she says. “With substance abuse, it’s usually not about the substance. It’s about self-esteem.”
That’s why she wants a company vehicle without a company logo. Kids don’t want to be picked up from school in a car marked Gateway – good folks. But too many questions, too many stigmas. Many of her referrals come to her from juvenile courts.
And that’s where she started in this competition – the older end of the fight. She spent 12 years as a parole officer. It wasn’t easy keeping her charges out of jail. Once you’ve been in the clink a few times, your attitudes harden, your behaviors set like bad mental Jell-O.
“A lot of the dysfunction began when they were young,” she says, noting that her charges now are 13-17 in age, 25-30 in number and come to her between school, work and home. “If someone would have stepped in, maybe their lives wouldn’t have gone so astray.”
That’s why she jumped at the chance to run the Clubhouse, a grant-funded program, one of nine across Georgia, started six years ago under the auspices of the state mental health agency. It’s based in Savannah out of an ordinary looking home on East DeRenne Ave.
Of course, I don’t have to tell you that Gerido and her small team aren’t the only people in Savannah doing this kind of work. The coach, the Y, the church, that good neighbor lady who always has something in the kitchen to cook – they all want kids to be kids.
“I don’t think it takes a program to be in existence for us to give back to our youth,” she says. “They are our future. We have to invest in them. We can do small things.”
Like giving out book bags! The Clubhouse recently partnered with several community groups to offer hundreds of kids free backpacks at a back-to-school event. Gerido came from behind the giveaway table to introduce the Clubhouse to the general public.
Her face positively lit up when she started talking to one parent and her troubled son. I hope “Miss G” continues lighting up because her competition is darkening our streets.