Former teacher works to help teens

by Erin Odom

Drew Etler uses unconventional methods, such as volleyball, to connect with teens. Here she works with 15-year-old Amy Loftin.

It was the fall of 1999, and Drew Etler was starting her first day of a tutoring job that would change her life forever. Amid the drugs and gangs of the inner-city Boston high school, in walked 17-year-old Fritz.

Tightly woven braids lined the scalp of the boy with the unexpected light in his eyes. The other teenagers’ faces held defeat, said Etler. But Fritz stood out.

“Fritz skittered above the urban wreckage,” Etler, now a Huntersville youth mentor, remembered.

While the other students greeted her with uninterested silence, Fritz welcomed Etler into his classroom.

“Hey, Miss! Sit at our table!” he called to her. She fought back the tears at the gracious gesture of acceptance.

An unlikely friendship began. The 27-year-old white girl from Connecticut and the black teenager met twice a week. She helped him write a research paper, and he showed her to love teenagers for who they are.

“Fritz taught me far more than I taught him,” Etler said. “The best thing I did for Fritz was to like him, just as he was. I laughed at the (jokes) rather than shushing it; I praised his writing without pointing out that it was a three-page-long paragraph.”

Fritz wanted to be a doctor. But he never got the chance.

That summer Fritz’s teacher called Etler with the news: Fritz was dead.

He had been illegally selling guns, and one of his buyers shot him.

“I never got that next time to teach him better,” Etler said.

Fritz’s life – and death – propelled Etler to continue with a career in education and mentoring troubled youth.

“Fritz taught me that kids don’t need my condescending good intentions,” she said.  “Nor do they need me to save them. What Fritz needed, and what every other teen I’ve worked with needs, is for me to tune in to them for a change.”

And that’s what Etler is doing with Teen Life Coach, a mentoring service for Charlotte-area youth that she started last summer. She meets with kids one-on-one or in small groups and uses unconventional methods to help build their self-esteem and aid them through the turbulent teen years.

“I seek to understand what the kid loves, what the kid is yearning for and how the kid is trying to meet that need,” she said.

‘I took to the streets’

Etler has had success tapping into troubled teens because she was like them.

By the time she was 15, she had lost her father, lived with an abusive stepfather, run away from home, spent a month in homelessness and survived captivity in a prison-like reform program.

“All of my growing up years were really difficult,” Etler said. “I wanted to be with the tough kids because I didn’t have anything in common with the well-adjusted kids. When I was 13 I took to the streets.”

She spent a month homeless until her mother put out a warrant for her arrest. She spent the next month in a group home.

Unsure what to do, Etler’s mother enrolled her 14-year-old daughter in a drug rehabilitation program in Springfield, Virginia called Straight, Inc.

But Etler wasn’t a drug addict.

Straight, Inc. operated as a teen rehabilitation program from 1976-1993, a website entitled Surviving Straight, Inc said. The site includes testimonials of hundreds of former clients about the camp’s abusive methods of humiliation, sleep and food deprivation and other abuses.

During Etler’s 16-month stay, she experienced emotional, psychological and physical abuse at the hands of the other children in the camp under the direction of its leaders. Other children in the program strip searched her, spit and screamed in her face and stood over her as she used the bathroom.

“Kids were brainwashed to abuse other kids,” Etler said. “The goal was to humiliate you.”

Etler returned to Connecticut after her stay at Straight, Inc. but the emotional scars remained with her for years.

‘I saw myself in them’

Etler moved to Portland, Oregon when she was 20 after take some college courses and bouncing around to different jobs. The move was what she needed.

The city “parented” her, she said. “It was a safe place for a person who was different. It cracked the shell off of me. It made me human again.”

After four years in Portland, Etler moved back to the Northeast and eventually made her way to the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where her self-esteem grew through academic success, she said.

And it was there Etler took the tutoring job that led her to meet Fritz and students like him.

“Their souls were beaten down, and I saw myself in them,” she said.

Etler excelled in the intense environment. “It was the worst of inner city schools, but I found my niche,” she said. “I found where I belonged. I guess I belonged in a war zone.”

Etler and her husband, Eric, moved to Huntersville five years ago. She worked in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools for a year and the Mooresville Graded School District for three years.

A student from Mooresville inspired her to start her business, Teen Life Coach.

She took this year off to focus on growing her business and finishing her memoir, “Straightling,” which she hopes to publish next year.

“My work with teens has taught me that good flowers don’t grow from bad soil,” she said. “So I fertilize the soil before planting the seeds.

“Thanks, Fritz, for the lessons.”

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