Program aims to increase young students’ self-worth

By Elise Franco

AUSTINTOWN — Middle-school students are learning lessons about responsibility and decision- making that Principal Chris Berni said will affect their lives as adults.

Six years ago, Berni introduced students to Operation Keepsake Inc., an educational program that declares its mission as challenging young people to “develop healthy relationships, strong character and sexual restraint so they may build and sustain committed marriages and strong families in the future.”

He said he decided to bring Operation Keepsake to Austintown Middle School as a tool to help pre-teens and young adults understand self-worth.

“They’re able to see firsthand how media and entertainment does everything possible to give kids a distorted view of who they are at that age,” Berni said. “I know Operation Keepsake gives middle-school kids the information to let them know they’re a treasured possession.”

Berni said younger students need to understand themselves and understand the consequences of their choices, and this program helps them do just that.

“Right now counts for forever,” he said. “Their actions could really offset the course of life in their future.”

Program liaison Deborah Landis said the organization was founded in 1988 and now serves more than 150 schools in the Greater Youngstown and Greater Cleveland areas, including 13 districts in Trumbull and Mahoning counties.

She said the organization is government-funded, and the program costs the school district nothing.

Landis said students go through a five-day course that is tailored by grade level to meet the needs of the children in that age group. Landis said the instructors are college-educated and go through continual training seminars.

Sixth-graders, whose course was taught last week, are primarily taught lessons on self-worth and understanding their own uniqueness, as well as puberty and reproduction, she said.

“Sixth grade is where peer pressure really starts,” she said. “This leads us to building skills to help them against that peer pressure.”

In seventh grade, the conversation becomes a bit more mature, Landis said. She said the students discuss goal-setting and the understanding that the decisions they make now will leave a lasting impression.

“We help them make a game plan,” she said. “We also teach them about sexually transmitted infections by explaining how an individual could become infected and what the most common ones are.”

Landis said Operation Keepsake surveyed 1,269 seventh-graders in 2007 and determined that 6.8 percent of those students claimed to have had sex. In 2008, a similar survey was done on 1,290 seventh-graders, and the percentage dropped to 4.8 percent, Landis said.

Landis said the curriculum in eighth grade is similar. Programming for students in high school is slightly different and deals with lessons on abstinence as well as types of contraception.

“In our middle-school curriculum, we as an organization, as well as schools and parents, believe the healthiest behavior for that age group is to not engage in risky behavior,” she said. “The program for this age group is abstinence- centered, but we do share information about [protection] in seventh and eighth grade.”

Berni said participation is voluntary, and a letter that includes the full curriculum is sent home to parents before the start of the course.

“We want parents to be fully aware of what will be taught,” he said. “I’d say, honestly, 99 percent of students participate.”

To make the students feel more comfortable, the classes were divided up by gender two years ago, Berni said. He said the regular- education teachers are also in the room to supervise.

“They’re discussing information that could clearly be embarrassing to one gender or the other,” he said.

Berni said parents whose children have gone through the program have given only positive feedback.

“They’re very grateful and pleased our school is offering the message to young people that it’s not OK to be engaged in sexual activity during these years,” he said.

  • Sixth-grade topics

Self-worth, peer pressure, understanding individual uniqueness, puberty and human reproduction.

  • Seventh-grade topics

Decision-making, goal- setting, sexually transmitted infections.

  • Eighth-grade topics

Sexually transmitted infections, sexual awareness, basic contraception, healthy relationships.

  • Mahoning Co. districts







South Range



  • Trumbull Co. districts




Joseph Badger

Source: Deborah Landis of Operation Keepsake