St. Paddy's Day party for teens at the Butte YMCA

Teen party organizers, from left, Josie Klapan, 18; Rianna O'Connell, 18; and Cassidy Duddy, 17, have been working as volunteers to throw a party for kids on Butte's St. Patrick's Day.

Whether a teenage student has straight As or is skating by with C average grades, most are all about extra-credit opportunities.

This month, 20 Butte teachers are offering extra credit if their sixth- through 12th-grade students attend the St. Patrick’s Day Free Teen Party at the YMCA on Sunday.

The party is the brainchild of Butte’s Teens Advocating a Safe Community group and aims to give teens a safe tobacco- and alcohol-free way to celebrate the Irish holiday for several years.

“It’s a really good way to keep kids safe on a rough, exciting holiday in Butte,” said Rianna O’Connell, 18.

O’Connell is the CEO of Butte’s TASC group and has been part of the club since she was in seventh grade. She said she loves that the club both empowers students to become leaders and to advocate for their peers by speaking out against the issues teens face.

“I’ve gone through a lot of hard times, and the group has always been there for me to fall back on,” O’Connell said. “It’s kept me straight and has made me the best person I could be.”

About 14 years ago, Justice of the Peace Ben Pezdark started the TASC group with support from the Butte-Silver Bow County Health Department, where he worked at the time. The group started with a few passionate Butte High juniors that Pezdark worked with to educate teens about the negatives of tobacco use and other issues, and it has “flourished into something special” since then, Pezdark said.

The club takes action by hosting game nights at local schools where parents and their kids can discuss real issues, a summer camp that works to empower teens, and the St. Patrick's Day party, among other initiatives.

“There are an awful lot of kids in the community who see the brunt of problems that affect them in their schools every day,” Pezdark said. “We help young kids speak out and work through these problems.”

Pezdark is still a mentor with TASC along with Josh Peck, creative services specialist at Northwestern Energy. The two men meet with the club every Sunday evening to discuss the problems or issues it is concerned with and how the teens can address them locally and even legislatively, Pezdark said.

“It’s overwhelming to explain what the kids do,” Pezdark said. “You learn an awful lot when you stand in front of those kids and hear their concerns. They don’t want their brothers and sisters to deal with what they see every day.”

Another one of those kids working with Pezdark and O’Connell is Cassidy Duddy, 17. She also joined the TASC group in seventh grade and has seen it evolve over the years from a anti-tobacco-focused club to a group that addresses whatever issues it feels are important for creating a safer community.

“Bullying and suicide prevention are our main focuses now, but of course we look at drug and alcohol prevention, too,” Duddy said.

Duddy said the club plans to get more involved in the state legislature and is working with the county’s chief executive office to potentially start a recycling program.

“TASC is really like a family. … It fosters a familial bond which has kept me in it. And we do meaningful work,” Duddy said.

Duddy, O’Connell, and the roughly 20 other TASC members will be at the free teen party at the YMCA on Sunday. The first year they threw it, the club thought they’d get maybe 50 or 60 of their peers to show up. Instead, hundreds of students came to the event, and they ended up having to split the party in two, hosting middle school students at the Margaret Leary Elementary School gym and high school students at the Butte YMCA.

This year, because St. Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday, TASC is bringing the parties back together. Both the Jacob Wheeler Foundation, a local group that combats suicide, and the Butte Kiwanis club are pitching in too, so that from 5:30 to 9 p.m., teens can listen and dance to music from DJ Doc Savage or participate in activities like dodgeball at the YMCA.

“On St. Patrick’s Day, it seems every adult is doing something, and that something is drinking,” Duddy said. “This party gives teens something to do. … While every other local place is dedicated to adults, we are dedicated to offering something for younger people.”

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