Donald Robinson, a police officer at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren since 2001, might not tell you exactly what happened that day several years ago that he started thinking about a program for local teens. He might not mention that he felt a calling from a higher power to support kids in his community that really needed his help. But if the truth is told, that’s what happened, and Robinson has taken that divine intervention and grown it into a venture that casts a wide net and is making a difference with teens across our communities.
Robinson rooted the idea in his philosophy that “it takes a village to raise a teen.” The more positive influences and opportunities teens experience, the better chance that most will become responsible citizens that make a difference in their communities.
It was 2015 when Robinson, aided by wife Bronwen and a few volunteers, held his first “summit” at Salem Fields Community Church. “I was scared to death,” said Robinson, who was venturing into unchartered waters. He’d never done anything like this, he just knew he needed to do it.
“My first goal was to have a place where teens could be together, where we could celebrate them,” he said. “I wanted something other than sports that we could hold a couple of times a year where youth from the region could meet.”
Robinson immediately had the help of four local ministers, as well as that of a fellow NDW police officer. When he thought his first event had drawn only 30 people, he was upset and felt that he had failed. Once he reviewed all the sign-in sheets, he found there were actually 55 in attendance and his hopes were buoyed a bit.
His next step was to approach Spotsylvania County Schools Superintendent, Dr. Scott Baker. Robinson felt for the program to work, they needed to be accepted into the schools. He shared a video of the summit with Baker and explained that the group, now called the Teen Enrichment Network (TEN), was built on Christian principles “because I’m a Christian first,” said Robinson. He proposed a partnership with the school district, and Baker enthusiastically agreed. That partnership allowed the organization to grow from just summits to in-school group mentoring sessions, and helped the school district to establish the Aspire mentor program. What began with eight mentors quickly increased to nearly 30.
Dr. Baker called Robinson “sincere and genuine. This is a calling for him. His vision matched my desire to address the growing needs of our community.” Baker said the TEN partnership helped to develop the mentor program that Spotsylvania County teens needed and met the goal of teen leadership. “This is the opportunity to amplify their voices in terms of their needs. I am grateful for Donald and this program and the opportunity to galvanize community support.”
How did TEN get kids involved? Robinson approached people of all different professions and backgrounds to speak, mentor and get involved in TEN, but the key to teen involvement was simple. “The secret is to let the kids choose the subjects.” He found the teens choose a variety of subjects, not only related to different careers, but practical topics such as finance and more controversial topics, such as race relations. Robinson is especially proud of the diversity of the group, all colors and cultures are part of the organization.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused the group to reorganize a bit. The easiest fix was more teen leadership involvement. “The teens are now the members of the steering committee.” The committee plans summits and themes as well as speakers and entertainment. The committee also manages vendors that appear at TEN events, and have incorporated them into scholarship opportunities. He has a high school senior organizing fundraising events and other teen leaders serving as moderators for weekly gatherings. These gatherings are teens only, an atmosphere that makes for candid conversations and an environment that fosters creativity. In addition, Robinson moderates bi-weekly, topic specific, group mentoring sessions.
With the pandemic restrictions, TEN found unexpected opportunities. He was no longer limited to mentors from the area and was able to introduce the teens to individuals all over the United States. In addition, Storm Talk 365 Radio asked TEN to partner with them to supply speakers for their Teen Connections Segments.
TEN has also become a vehicle for teens to get involved in service to their community. They have raised money for hand sanitizer for at-risk groups and scissors for a local elementary school. In 2021, they are raising money for Empowerhouse, one of their mentor partners.
One of TEN’s intentions was to make teens aware of the organizations available to assist them when they have challenges in life. They are proud to work with such organizations as Hope City Foundation, led by Pastor Trent Stinson, and Davy Fearon at Healthy Families, along with other members of the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. They are part of the Village Robinson stresses.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learned by TEN teens is not what they can do, but what they shouldn’t. Robinson has connected with a local community member who served time in the corrections system and turned his life around, becoming a business owner and a mentor for local teens.
“He doesn’t sugar coat his story,” said Robinson. “He shares how he got into the system and how hard it was to get out.” Robinson said he’s an inspiration and a polarizing figure for the teens in TEN.
This year is bittersweet for Robinson. His daughter Julianna, the outgoing president of TEN, is a senior and will be going away to college in the fall. “This group of seniors we have this year is amazing,” he said, adding that while he’ll miss all of them and their dedication to TEN, he looks forward to the next group coming through and honing their leadership skills.
Robinson is grateful for the support from NSASP. The organization has an extensive webpage with videos highlighting their accomplishments and events at www.teenenrichment.org.