'Symple Equazion': To help troubled teens

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comApril 1, 2013 

— A local author with an inspiring story of personal triumph recently launched a pilot program for high school students suffering from emotional and physical trauma.

Using lessons from her own life, Atwater resident Kelly Turner started a 12-week program called "Symple Equazion" for teens suffering from domestic violence, drug abuse, low self-esteem and other issues.

About 35 students at Sequoia and Golden Valley high schools participate once a week in the program, which started in February and runs through May.

The program helps students to identify what causes their sadness and often overwhelming anger, Turner said. "That awareness is the starting point to understand what's triggering me," she said. "Now I'm able to spot it when it's starting to happen, and that helps me to make a more informed decision when that anger or that hurt rises up."

Using informal group-therapy-type sessions called "family circle meetings," Turner hopes to help break the cycle of violence plaguing some of the area's most troubled youth. "They're mimicking what they see, and their parents are mimicking what they saw," she said. "It's just passed down from generation from generation."

As part of the curriculum, students read Turner's autobiography, "The Art of Frowns to Smiles."

No stranger to trauma, Turner, 44, grew up in South Central Los Angeles with an alcoholic, abusive mother and an often absent father who used and hustled illegal drugs. "It was nothing for me to have to help my mother count money, and we'd count $10,000 that he made overnight," she said. "I thought that's cool, the fast life, the fancy cars, the jewelry, the large sums of money."

However, after several stints in prison for robbery, she caught a third strike for forging a check and was sentenced to 25-to-life in prison.

After several months behind bars at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, a 30-year-old Turner received news her mother had killed herself.

A year and a half later, after numerous fights, altercations and intense grieving, she said something changed in her. "It was just a decision that I was tired of feeling miserable," she said. "I just decided that every time I would hear my mother's voice saying, 'You'll never amount to nothing, like your daddy,' I would start saying the opposite. And I started increasing my self-worth, my self-esteem."

Over the next eight years, Turner transformed her life. By petitioning the prison, she was able to get previously unavailable college classes offered at the facility and graduated with an associate degree in business. Today, nearly 500 women at CCWF are taking college classes.

After many hours in the prison's law library, Turner reached out to the advocacy group "Families to Amend California's Three Strikes Law." Working with a pro-bono legal team, in 2009 she was able to convince a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to rule that she had been "over-sentenced."

Following her release, Turner worked for a residential substance abuse treatment program in Stockton before starting her own nonprofit.

Now married and settled in Merced County, Turner said she wants to give back to students who grapple with challenges similar to her own. "The kids that I'm dealing with now, they use drugs, they sell drugs," she said. "I tell them all the time, I'm not here to tell you what to do. I'm simply here to listen to you and show you some different options."

As part of her program, she schedules field trips. On an upcoming outing, students who have expressed interest in the fashion industry will get to tour a clothing facility in Los Angeles.

At the same time, a relative of Turner's and former gang member will talk to the students about his experiences.

Turner's style is to create hands-on experiences that make life choices more tangible for students. She's looking forward to opening up a new world of opportunities to the students, and hoping they'll aim for goals that will lead to fruitful lives.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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