Aspire-ing youth The RIVER Project — Changing teenage lives, one class at a time

Elisha Neubauer / For the Chronicle

Being a teenager in today’s society isn’t as simple as it used to be — if there was ever really a time when being a teenager was simple.

Cyber bullying, sexual pressures, media stigmas, rampant drug use and many other factors are all issues our teens deal with on a daily basis, even in the “safe spaces” of their school halls. One poor decision made during their youth can forever alter the path their lives take. For some, it’s just too much pressure.

With the accessibility to information in our modern society, parents and teens alike are more exposed to the realities of teenage life than ever before. Television shows documenting teen pregnancies, teen suicides, and teen drug and sexual abuse are abundant across all media channels. But, there’s one thing that none of these revealing programs does for our teens: teach them how to make healthy decisions.

This is where the RIVER Project comes in.

For teens in Citrus County, there’s a helping hand in the form of Aspire — a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization based in Lecanto. Aspire aims to provide support and education to the youths of our community through a multitude of programs, classes, events and materials. One of their most successful programs is the RIVER Project (Reaching Intentional Victory, Expecting Reality). The program was created to fill a void after state funding to a similar program was cut off, leaving the teens of our county with no support or education on topics such as relationships, communication, sexual behaviors, drug abuse and more.

The RIVER Project is a school-based, risk-avoidance program. Its mission is to encourage teens to be intentional about avoiding risk and choosing health. They want to empower teens with the knowledge required to make healthy decisions regarding relationships, goals, media influences, communication, dating and sexual health — and to support them in the ability to steer clear of drug use, unhealthy relationships and premature sexual behavior.

Currently, the RIVER Project is an eight-week course, with Aspire program facilitators visiting schools once a week for eight consecutive weeks. Each visit covers a different topic, involving everything from goals and media influences to navigating differences and understanding the distinction between love and infatuation. Students are taught to recognize risky behavior, see the red flags in unhealthy relationships and understand the differences in communication styles and personality profiles. The teens are encouraged to speak and share their stories in a safe space and, in turn, are educated on how to spot and respond to vulnerabilities in others.

“We live in a society where being kind is not easy,” Victoria Thorp, program assistant for Aspire and facilitator for the RIVER Project, said to a classroom full of engrossed teens.

During the course of one class visit, Thorp and co-facilitator Val Byron discussed different scenarios that teens may find themselves in throughout their high school years. They focused on real-life events, real high school problems, without belittling them. They covered topics of teen suicide and bullying, alongside managing the stress of testing and handling boredom — not putting one above the other. They engaged the students, made them a part of their coursework. Interactive activities and games created a feeling of connectivity between facilitators and students and the conversations, while weighty and meaningful, were kept casual and colloquial, causing students to feel comfortable within the classroom.

A few weeks into the course, the Aspire team asks for feedback from the students in the form of an anonymous questionnaire. The students’ opinions and suggestions are then worked into the second half of the program, so that all students feel they get what they need out of the modules without having to actively speak up. On the questionnaire is a space for additional comments and just about every paper turned in had stunning responses to the program.

“This program has taught me to make better decisions,” one paper read; another, “I don’t feel alone anymore, thank you.” Others explained that they liked the support they felt from the program and the facilitators, while others said they wanted more than just eight weeks of the RIVER Project.

Perhaps one of the most important messages delivered by the Aspire team, and the closing segment of every RIVER Project class, is the meaning behind the organization’s mascot — the Etch A Sketch.

“We like to say, you create the picture of your life,” said Katie Neely, co-founder and program director of Aspire, “The twists, the turns, the decisions of who you are and who you become. If you don’t like the picture of your life, if you’re not happy with some of the decisions that you’re making, what’s the best part about an Etch A Sketch? You can shake it up.”

To find out more information about Aspire or the RIVER Project, to donate or to volunteer, visit, visit their Facebook page at, or call 352-423-1271.

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