For many students, the first day of school means reunions with good friends and the challenges of studying new subjects, but for others it means dealing with bullies and feelings of failure.

High school and middle school students in Tuscarawas County are going to have an opportunity to address some of these issues during a series of assemblies conducted by Bill Ballenger of Break the Grey the week of Sept. 10.

Ballenger will be at Newcomerstown High School on Monday, Sept. 10.

Ballenger, who dealt with his own struggles of rebellion and drug and alcohol use, will speak to the students about making good decisions. Actually, Ballenger is more interested in listening to youth than telling them his story.

"When you start having a conversation with them, you can hear a pin drop," the resident of Indiana said at recent meeting with volunteers in Dover. "We do not sweep things under the rug. We discuss their issues and character development."

Some of the issues students bring up with Ballenger and his mentors are suicide, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use and sexual activity.

Ballenger, 42, can relate to the problems the students are dealing with. Before age 20, he had run away from home, become a father and, along with his wife Jodie, was arrested, sentenced to a 6-year prison term and lost custody of their 9-month-old daughter.

That was the turning point for both.

"I thought, 'I love my wife I love my daughter. I want my life back. I don't want to do drugs anymore,'" he said.

After that, he turned to performing music and has released several CDs. His career eventually evolved into conducting assemblies for middle and high school students. He will end his series of assemblies with a free concert on Thursday, Sept. 13, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in the Dover High auditorium. The opening band will be The Protest.

Ballenger is coming to Tuscarawas County through the efforts of Joan Stiffler of Canton, a former area resident. She said she saw Ballenger on television a couple of weeks after the shootings at Chardon High in March.

"At that time, I knew I was supposed to turn off the television and get in touch with the station. At 10:10 in the morning, I started tracking him down and reached him that afternoon. I've worked with kids for years, and I love them," she said adding that she agreed to serve as local event coordinator because of that.

Stiffler, Ballenger and his wife have met with area school officials and other interested people to recruit volunteers and finalize plans.

Ballenger will speak with middle and high school students in Claymont, Indian Valley, Newcomerstown, Strasburg, Tuscarawas Valley, Garaway, New Philadelphia and Dover school districts.

Students attending the assemblies will receive free concert tickets, worth $25 but paid for by friends of youth in the county. Free tickets also will be available at Wendy's restaurants in the county after Labor Day.

To get a better look at Break the Grey, visit Anyone who would like to bring Break the Grey to other area schools can contact Val Norton, director of operations, at 269-601-8785 or email her at