Christian Bennett’s role as a petty officer in the U.S. Navy requires toughness. Look at her picture — the portrait of a fierce warrior. Yet, Bennett, a 20-year-old North High School alumna, is a sweetheart. “She always had a smile on her face,” says Sherry Fisher, a school social worker. “She’s just a very, very strong young lady. I knew once she set her mind on something that she was going to do it.”
On Oct. 8, Bennett returned to her tiny room that she shares with roommates after four days of sightseeing in Thailand, the tropical country just north of the equator known for ornate temples and beautiful beaches.
For six months, Bennett had been heading west: Hawaii, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. This was no pleasure cruise. Those stops were part of “liberty port” — quick breaks from her days on the U.S.S. George Washington, an immense aircraft carrier that took six years to build. Travel was one reason Bennett joined the Navy. When she first learned she’d head to the Far East, Bennett thought, “I can go there. I can see the world. I can tell all my friends I’ve seen Tokyo.” She remembers, “It was exciting. I never thought in a million years I could travel all around and see the places I’ve seen. Thailand was my favorite. (During liberty port), we went jet skiing. We went swimming. The beaches were beautiful. We ate different foods and tried things I wouldn’t normally eat.”
Bennett shipped off last December. She credits Fisher for influencing her decision, but as a social worker with Youth First, Fisher credits Bennett for her courage to serve her country. Youth First, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing child substance use and abuse, has 30 social workers in Southwest Indiana. “My best friend is a school counselor, and she has the best description (of the difference between school counselor and social worker),” says Fisher. “A school counselor meets with all of the students a little bit. The school social worker meets with a little of the students a lot.” Though Fisher hosts Youth First programs for hundreds of students every year, she also meets with about 25 students regularly via recommendations of principals or teachers. One such student was Bennett.
Weekly, the two met to discuss life — schoolwork, chess team, home. The experience developed into a friendship. “It is tailored to let the student meet at any time,” Fisher says. “Sometimes, (Bennett) needed more. Sometimes, she needed less.” Fisher believed the Navy could help Bennett mature. “In the Navy, I’ve learned to hold my tongue a lot,” Bennett says. “I’ve learned to be more respectful. I used to be late for everything. I’m on time now. It’s taught me to be grateful for what I do have. I couldn’t stand my family, and I miss my family so much now. I just wish I had them.”
With Youth First social workers in nearly 50 schools, the premise has worked since its inception in 1998. Backed by the Indiana Prevention Resource Center in Bloomington, Ind., here’s one figure to support this claim: Since 1999, the number of local high school seniors binge drinking daily has dropped nearly 18 percent. Youth First’s reach continues to expand: Last year, 26 Youth First social workers served 43 schools; today, 30 are in 49 schools. “Resources don’t allow us to have a social worker at every school,” says Dr. William Wooten, the Youth First founder.
“But we know the results,” says Fisher, “and Christian is the perfect example.” Those successes have attracted attention. In October, Youth First earned statewide recognition when a coalition of Hoosier foundation, nonprofit, and business leaders presented the Evansville-based organization an Indiana Achievement Award. The achievement signifies devotion and determination to a community-improving mission.
Locally, Fisher now helps in the Warrick County school system and keeps two photos of Bennett in her Castle North Middle School office. “I know she tells a lot of people I had a big role in where she is today,” Fisher says, “and I tell her that really I didn’t. I just gave her options.” That’s Fisher’s approach with her students: “I don’t take credit for the success; I don’t take credit for the failure. As individuals, we each have the right to make decisions about our lives.”