CELEBRATING 15 YEARSof offering innovative online counseling, education

By Caren Chaffee, MS

Internet-based communication and social networking are integral aspects of the lives of today’s teens. But in 1998, when an online counseling site for teens was introduced, this was not the case. TeenCentral.Net was on the cusp of the Internet phenomenon and, in many ways, ahead of its time.

The Internet became used by the masses on an increasingly widespread basis in the mid-1990s. At the time, users were just beginning to understand and take advantage of the intricacies the Internet had to offer. Around the same time, KidsPeace examined its continuum of care, which included inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, residential care, education, foster care and community-based programs. While these programs amounted to a very comprehensive amount of experience providing direct care to kids in crisis, KidsPeace understood the importance of helping youth before their situations reached crisis levels. Therefore, the decision was made to create a prevention program to round out the spectrum of services that KidsPeace could provide to youth. It was quickly realized that the Internet was swiftly becoming the language of teens and could provide access to the widespread group of individuals regardless of their geographic location.

The Heinz Foundation provided a $175,000 grant for the start-up of an online counseling website. KidsPeace worked with a Chicago-based firm for the next 18 months to create the initial TeenCentral.Net website. However, while the web pages were created and were very attractive to the target demographic, there was an important piece missing: a pool of teen “stories” and “questions” that would demonstrate to page visitors how the website worked and its benefits to teens. As a result, Ginger Papp, a KidsPeace associate who had been working in admissions at the time, was asked to write “seed stories” from the perspective of an adolescent. The task proved to be more monumental than initially anticipated, so she asked Julius Licata, who had been working as a social worker on our Orchard Hills Campus at the time, for his help. They created a large database of seed stories for TeenCentral.Net in time for its national launch before the United States Congress on Sept. 8, 1998.

The launch did not go as smoothly as planned. When it was introduced to members of Congress, the site was inoperable. Furthermore, the logistics of the writing, submissions and response to stories had not yet been determined. But a week of intensive work to redesign the site and make decisions about the logistics of story submissions and counselors’ responses led to a great synergy and ability to work together as a team. One month later, the new site went live. TeenCentral.Net was relaunched in the format that it boasts today: when adolescents log on anonymously, they can post questions and stories about the situations for which they are seeking advice. A counselor responds to each question within 24 hours then other teens can respond to the story as well, creating a peer mentoring atmosphere. All submissions and responses are screened by TeenCentral administrators prior to their posting, providing sound clinical advice and safety parameters that circumvent many of the dangers teens may face through their use of chat rooms and social networking sites.

At first, the site received a few stories a day from teens seeking advice. As it started to gain popularity, the number of submissions increased. Ginger and Julius began to recruit and hire counselors and administrators and held trainings two or three times a year to ensure continuity in the provision of services. In late 1999, after realizing they were putting in full-time hours with TeenCentral.Net in addition to their KidsPeace positions, Ginger and Julius asked that their management of TeenCentral.Net become their full-time positions. KidsPeace leadership agreed to their request, but ensured their positions within KidsPeace for one year to allow time to better ascertain the future of TeenCentral. The “contingency plan” proved unnecessary, as TeenCentral continued its rise to success. After exposure in YM, a popular teen magazine, stories were submitted at a rate of up to 400 per day. The volume became so high that in 2002, TeenCentral.Net was forced to cap the number of teen stories that could be submitted in one day to ensure that youth received feedback from counselors within the promised 24 hours.

Ginger and Julius continued to operate as a team to guarantee the success of the site that had become a significant part of their KidsPeace careers. However, in September 2005, Ginger received devastating news: after a four-year remission from breast cancer, the illness had returned and metastasized to her liver. Sadly, on Sept. 30, 2005, Ginger lost her battle. The loss was felt deeply throughout KidsPeace, however, her legacy continues through TeenCentral.Net and inspires the ongoing success and growth of the site.

Through the years, TeenCentral.Net has provided more than counselor-to-teen and peer-to-peer mentoring. In times of national crisis, such as the tragedy in Columbine, the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., TeenCentral.Net has provided advice and counsel on-location at conferences, through the media and on the site to assist adolescents in dealing with the impact of the devastation.

When teens’ stories and counselors’ responses are posted to the site, they are categorized by topic area. This feature allows teens who log into the site to read other teens’ questions and the responses they receive on topics for which they may be seeking similar advice. But TeenCentral.Net has also found new and creative ways to provide resources to youth through “sub-sections” which offer more in-depth information on specific topics, as well as interactive activities to maintain their interest.

In 2003, utilizing a grant provided by Phillip-Morris, TeenCentral.Net launched a unique sub-section of the site targeting smoking cessation. In 2007, a similar sub-section was developed with Pennsylvania Department of Health funds for weight awareness concerns and the social, psychological and emotional roots of under- and over-eating. In addition to the supportive online counseling, the sub-site includes interactive quizzes and activities that both educate and support youth with weight awareness concerns. An overwhelmingly positive response to these sub-sections led TeenCentral.Net to create a sub-section with a grant from Verizon Foundation that addresses domestic violence and teen dating violence and allows teens who are impacted by domestic violence to participate in activities and seek support for the challenges they face. In 2011, an alcohol education sub-section was launched using grant money from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Funding from the Department of Justice is currently being utilized to develop a sub-section for youth who have parents in the military and for youth in foster care. These sub-sections will be further enhanced with “virtual meeting rooms” that will allow adult facilitators to provide online group counseling to teens who are given a special password into the “room” for the time of the meeting. Other sub-sections presently in development focus on healthy relationships (through an additional grant being provided by Verizon) and religious tolerance (as a result of funds from the United Muslim Foundation).

ParentCentral.Net was launched in early 2011 in response to a need conveyed by parents with adolescent children. Specifically, parents were reaching out for help through the “Contact Us” section of TeenCentral.Net, seeking advice on helping their teenage children with challenging situations. KidsPeace recognized the need and launched the companion site ParentCentral.Net. Based on the success of the TeenCentral.Net site, ParentCentral.Net was designed with a similar format and is being utilized by parents in need.

Now, 15 years after TeenCentral.Net’s initial launch, both sites are the centerpieces of KidsPeace’s prevention programming:
  • The sites are utilized in 125 countries and military bases
  • More than 507,000 members have registered since 1998
  • Hits total between 1.5 and 2 million each month
  • Counselors have responded to almost 200,000 stories from teens
Today, Julius serves as the director of both sites and volunteers are recruited both within and outside of KidsPeace to provide counseling to teens and parents. Training takes place online, allowing for even international recruitment. TeenCentral.Net has been part of the curriculum of several colleges, including Lehigh University, Cedar Crest College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. Interns, who complete the work of counselors but earn a grade at the end of a semester, are drawn from a variety of colleges, including several in Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Vermont and even Budapest.

During its 15 years of operation, TeenCentral.Net has had extremely positive media coverage in sources such as Newsday, The Washington Post, The Hartford Courant, The Chicago Sun-Times, and many more. TeenCentral.Net has received awards from the Web Health Awards; was named “one of the five most innovative and constructive uses of their software” by Microsoft; has been named a “Top Ten Site for Teens” by Examiner.com (ranked first for the past five years) and was called a “Best Bet for Educators” by Business Weekly.
However, perhaps the most significant and impressive accolades come from the youth who have used the site:

“I think [TeenCentral.Net] can help a lot of teens when they need to turn to someone. It lets you relate to people and tell them how you’re feeling.” – Rexxy, 18

“I think that this is a GREAT place to express your feelings and tell what is going wrong in your life!” – lotasweets, 14

“I think this is cool because you can say anything or ask anything and you will get an answer!” “WOO-HOO!!”– Kitty, 12

Now I guess I have to believe that there are actual people in this world who actually care for the children. Thanks guys… You’re doing such a great job!” – Potato, 16

Caren Chaffee, MS, began working for KidsPeace in 1999 in foster care as a family resource specialist. She moved into the Advancement Department in 2001 and is currently the Director of Government Affairs for KidsPeace. Caren has a master’s degree in counseling from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and is a former TeenCentral.Net counselor. She resides in Orchard Park, N.Y., with her husband and two young children.