By Dave Ongie
During a time of isolation, T.R. and Carla Dunn turned their attention toward finding a way to help teens in our community. Their passion for helping young people hatched an idea that sprang to life this past weekend in the form of an organization for high school students called 4ThirTEEN.
The organization held a ribbon cutting on Saturday at 3515 Bristol Highway in Johnson City, officially opening a space that will support youth ages 13-21 through principles of faith, fortitude family and fun. The name is derived from Philippians 4:13, which reads, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Dunn said that while several community and non-profit organizations offer a safe place for children from kindergarten through eighth grade, high school students have not had a place to go after school and during the summer.
“We wanted to develop something that fills that gap,” he said.
Dunn’s thoughts turned toward high school students during the pandemic when school was being conducted virtually and extracurricular activities were curbed in an effort to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Anecdotal evidence of a worsening mental health crisis among young people compelled the Dunns to consider what they might be able to do to help restore a healthy, meaningful sense of community for high school students once the pandemic subsided.
When T.R. Dunn read Philippians 4:13, the idea for an organization for teens and run by teens was born with “Teens doing all things” as the tagline. As the pandemic started to ease up in the spring of 2021, the Dunns met with Johnson City leaders – including Commissioner Jenny Brock, City Manager Pete Peterson and Parks & Recreation Director James Ellis to pitch their idea.
“Pete said, ‘I applaud you all, but I think you’re crazy,’” Dunn recalled with a laugh. “ ’You’re dealing with teenagers.’ ”
All kidding aside, city leadership was aware of the glaring need for a safe place for teens and was grateful to see the Dunns’ passion for doing something to address it. In the spring of 2021, the Dunns created an application and sent it to Science Hill and Liberty Bell in search of 20-25 students to serve on an advisory board. Within days, over 200 applications came flooding in.
The Dunns left it to the school administrators to pick the advisory board, but they did so with some important caveats.
“This is the criteria, and I’m very intentional about this,” T.R. Dunn recalls telling an administrator at Science Hill. “I don’t want them all to be the same color. I don’t want them to all have the same grade point average. I don’t want all their parents making the same amount of money.
“We are very intentionally diverse,” he added.
When the advisory board met for the first time, the students were waiting for the catch when T.R. asked them how they would design and run a teen center, but there was none. The Dunns would be there to advise them, but all aspects of the programming and day-to-day operations of the teen center would be put in the hands of the advisory board.
“I tell people all the time that I’m the GPS, and they are the drivers,” Dunn said.
When the ideas started flowing at that initial meeting, the Dunns could hardly believe their ears. The students wanted courses on how to be professional, how to handle themselves at job interviews and how to fill out job applications. They also wanted to learn about basic life skills like how to change their own oil and how to change a flat tire.
Beyond that, there was a desire to learn how to handle money, how to save it and how to invest it. When the meeting wrapped up, it is safe to say the Dunns were surprised with the vision the students had cast for their organization.
“We left there, me and my wife, and we were just in tears,” T.R. recalled. “If we would just give voices back to teenagers, can you imagine how great our community would be?”
The advisory board’s first order of business was planning and running an end of school block party in 2021, and they passed that challenge with flying colors. Approximately 3,000 people attended the event at Freedom Hall.
This spring, the advisory board once again planned and executed another successful block party and then kicked it up a notch by holding an event at Freedom Hall featuring Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow aimed at raising awareness for mental health issues among young people.
This past Saturday, all the hard work the advisory board has put in finally paid off when 4ThirTEEN celebrated its grand opening ceremony. What was on display was true diversity, and that didn’t happen by accident.
In a world where people are frequently divided by race, color and creed, the Dunns are setting forth to show the strength that comes by overcoming differences.
“That’s our favorite word – intentional,” T.R Dunn said. “If you don’t do something intentionally, it won’t just happen. You’ve got to at least push people out of their comfort zone. We always want to be intentional about being inclusive and diverse.
“Love, as the Bible says, covers a multitude of sins. Love will bring us together in unity. Unity has no color.”