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Orange Duffel Bag Program Helping At-Risk Teens Find Success | Community Spirit

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Orange Duffel Bag Program Helping At-Risk Teens Find Success
Orange Duffel Bag Program Helping At-Risk Teens Find Success

By Daniel Daniels, Bibb County School District Communications Intern

“Develop a comprehensive life plan to achieve their high school diploma or GED, further their postsecondary education and gain relevant employment.” This is the mission of one program helping youth enrolled in the Bibb County School District.

The Orange Duffel Bag Initiative (ODBI) is a nonprofit organization that offers a 12-week coaching program for at-risk youth. Students enrolled in the program are mentored by life coaches who help the students develop a life plan that expands beyond high school.

The ODBI program grew from the experiences of ODBI program co-founder, Sam Bracken. As a child, Mr. Bracken was a victim of abuse and endured a tumultuous home life. His mother left when he was 15 years old, which caused Mr. Bracken to complete high school without a home. In spite of the many challenges he faced, Mr. Bracken was a gifted athlete and exemplary student. With his perseverance, and his performance on the sports field and in the classroom, he earned a scholarship to play football at Georgia Tech.

The Orange Duffel Bag premise stems from Mr. Bracken’s travels from Nevada and to Georgia; he had so few personal items that he was able to travel with all of his belongings in one orange duffel bag.

Mr. Bracken, along with co-author, Echo Garrett, wrote a book titled “My Orange Duffel Bag – A Journey to Radical Change,” which chronicles the many hardships Mr. Bracken faced, and gives a roadmap for youth to build a better life and overcome adversity. The tenets of the roadmap include Desire, Awareness, Meaning, Choice, Love, Change, and Gratitude.

Keri Rowe, Homeless Assistant for the Bibb County School District, explained that 25 to 30 ODBI students meet once a week at Middle Georgia State College. The students participating in the ODBI program are given mandatory homework assignments and in-class assignments to complete. The students who complete the class successfully are rewarded with a laptop at the ODBI program graduation. They are also presented with an orange duffel bag, which is a symbolic token for completing the class. 

While the ODBI program in Macon initially focused on students in foster care, the ODBI classes have expanded to include a hybrid of different at-risk youth, Ms. Rowe said. 

“They call it the Macon model,” she said. “It includes students who are homeless, as well as students who are just at-risk for other reasons.” 

Ms. Rowe works as a liaison between the Bibb County School District and the ODBI program. She assists in enrolling students and recruiting potential participants for the ODBI program. 

“At the beginning, you see kids who have a lot of walls up,” she said. “They were from a lot of different situations, some pretty bad.” 

She explained that seeing the students grow from quiet and reserved to presenting their life goal at the ODBI graduation, and listing how they will achieve that goal, proves that the goal is not only a dream, but instead it is a reality that can happen for the student.

ODBI classes are led by coaches who help guide them toward developing a life goal. Two of the ODBI coaches are Beth McKinnon and Luis Castro.

While speaking to a group of potential ODBI program participants at Southwest High School this month, Mr. Castro explained to the students that participation in the ODBI program will help them to become prepared, discover their purpose in life, and learn what they were born to do.

He told the students, “you are always one day away from tomorrow.”

Mr. Castro said ODBI participants are initially skeptical of the program.

“They come with all these misconceptions,” he said. 

The first class of each ODBI session involves a ropes course. Mr. Castro said he believes working together as a team on the ropes course encourages the students to remove certain barriers. Another initial class involves an exercise where the students share their life experiences and problems they are facing. 

“That’s when they start relating with each other,” he said. 

As the students traverse through the program and reach graduation, “you can see all those walls coming down, them becoming more serious; more mature in the way, and serious about the roles that they play as a student, as a child, as a parent,” Mr. Castro said.

“They see possibilities for themselves that they hadn’t really seen before,” Ms. McKinnon said. “They start to believe that they can do it, and believe in themselves.”

Mr. Castro and Ms. McKinnon said the ODBI course is constantly evolving.

“It is really open for the coaches to bring input, and pretty much just surround the curriculum around the kids’ needs,” Mr. Castro said.

Shardae Robeson, a senior at Central High School, is a graduate of the Orange Duffel Bag Macon Class 7. Shardae said her experience with the ODBI program changed her attitude, and it allowed her to understand that she is not the only person going through a difficult time.

She said the homework assignments helped her not only as a student, but to learn more about what she wants out of life.

“It actually helped me expand my knowledge,” she said. “Them helping us write, the writing and stuff they had us doing, it wasn’t actually complicated, it was only about us, on helping us better ourselves and getting to know ourselves, and who we are and what we want to do in life. … The writing that we did, I loved it.”

While the laptop was a motivating factor for Shardae and many participants initially, she said once she was immersed in the ODBI classes, she forgot about the laptop reward. 

“When you get in the program, you forget about the laptop,” she said. “You’re going to forget about the laptop. You’re going to forget about why you really were in that program, but you’re not really going to forget what you went through in order to get that laptop. You’re not going to forget what it took. Because when you’re in there, it’s kind of like a changing moment.”

Shardae plans to use the skills learned in the ODBI class as a springboard to potentially becoming a public speaker or social worker who helps kids.

“Sam Bracken really changed me,” Shardae said.  “These folks really take the time out of their time, and really want to help you.”

The Orange Duffel Bag program has held two Macon graduations this year. A third Macon class is slated to begin this summer, and its graduates will always be known as Macon Class 9 Orange Duffel Bag graduates.

To learn more about the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, visit http://orangeduffelbagfoundation.org.

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