Teens spoke, and the adults listened


They set up focus groups and distributed fliers. They organized job fairs and walkathons.

But the teens who served on the boards of local nonprofits as part of the first Youth on Board program said the best part was having their opinions taken seriously.

"They would ask me questions a lot," said Cathy Barker, who graduated Thursday from Centennial High School and served during the school year on the board of HC DrugFree, an organization that works to keep teens away from drugs.

"It was very much an eye-opening experience for me, dealing with adults, having adults take my ideas seriously," said Sam Zients, 17, who is graduating from Glenelg Country School and served on the board of the American Heart Association.

Zients said he recruited students from Glenelg Country to help with the organization's annual walkathon in November, and he also helped with a fundraising ball in May.

The Youth on Board program, which puts teens on the boards of local organizations, completed its first year last month.

According to Laurie Remer, the associate director of Leadership Howard County and the person who launched the program, it was a hit with the students and their mentors. The students, she said, "were very much taken by the fact that adults were interested in what they thought." And board members submitted glowing evaluations, she said, with most saying they would like to repeat the program in the fall.

Students choose a board that interests them from groups that have agreed to be in the program. Remer said the next program has about 12 interested boards and nine qualified students. In future years, she hopes to increase the number of participants, she said.

The Youth on Board students perform just like other board members, attending meetings and participating in committees.

Some boards did a better job of making room for the teens than others, Remer said, adding that one change that will take place in the coming session is there will be more support for both students and mentors. In the first year, there was one meeting in the fall and one in the spring, she said.

During the next session, there will be two sessions in the fall and two in the spring. "Not because anything went wrong," she said, "but I think we can strengthen that."

Some board members said the teens were, if anything, better prepared than many of the adults who serve on their boards. Brock Yetso, executive director of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, said Fana Mersha of Long Reach High School already knew Robert's Rules and many other intricacies of serving on a board.

Mersha worked on the board's scholarship committee, Yetso said, bringing a needed teen perspective while helping create an online application for the organization's national college scholarship program.

"She was helpful in sort of pilot-testing it and actually running it by some of her classmates," he said. "Some of our board members wouldn't catch half the things they caught. ... A lot of it surrounded just the usability, the language, how a young teenager, a high school person would relate to certain buttons, certain text that was used."

Other officials agreed that teens brought a valuable dimension to their boards. Laura Smit, executive director of HC DrugFree, said having a teen serve with an organization that serves teens "definitely makes absolute sense."

She said Barker was especially helpful with the organization's annual job fair, which was held in March and attracted 42 businesses and about 500 teens. Barker and her mentor on the board, Anne Walker, set up a focus group of about a dozen Centennial students to ask them about their job experiences and what they'd like to see in such a fair. "Just to get ideas of what we're looking for," Smit said.

Smit said Barker was "just really great."

Other participants, and the organizations they served with, were Bradley Booker from Archbishop Curley High School, the Columbia Foundation; Brittni Deale from Archbishop Spalding High School, the National Family Resiliency Center; Erin O'Connor from Long Reach High School, the STTAR Center; Anna Siegel from Wilde Lake High School, Howard County Conservancy; Alisha Stephens from Atholton High School, Howard County Festival for the Arts; and Lindsay Stielper from Howard High School, the Local Children's Board.

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