Local students unite to shape the future

The Baltimore Sun

"Students already have voices," said Andrew Gavelek, student member of the Howard County Board of Education. "It's just a matter of using them."

About 160 students from 29 middle and high schools had their voices heard last week at the second Youth Summit at The Gathering Place in Clarksville. The summit was sponsored by Voices for Change, an organization of young people and adults that empowers students to create positive change in Howard County, according to its mission statement.

Brianna Bradford, a junior at Reservoir High School, has served as the student co-chair of Voices for Change, formerly known as the Youth Summit Planning Committee, for the past two years.

"It has taken a lot of effort to build a good foundation for this group," she said. "I'm really excited about the progress we've made and hope more students want to be involved in helping us advocate change."

Elise Mellinger, youth program manager for the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks and adult co-chair, was one of about 40 adults -- planning team members and school staff -- who attended the summit.

"It's great to have such a diverse representation today," Mellinger said. "I think it's very important that different types of students can learn how to advocate for change."

Last year's summit focused on brainstorming solutions to five issues that teens face. This year the summit centered on empowering youth to make a difference and to teach them about building a support system within the community.

Youth advocate Derek Peterson, the keynote speaker at the summit, urged the attendees to look within themselves and to strive for positive community change. He stressed that success means having multiple options. Peterson wanted the students to understand the importance of having at least five caring adults in their lives to serve as anchors.

"I wanted to teach the students to create their web of support that will lead to their innate resiliency," Peterson said after his address. "It's equally important that they help their peers build 'personal villages' as well."

"I learned that you need help taking care of yourself," said Sadie Rockefeller, an eighth-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School. "You need support and can't do it on your own."

"Today was all about having your voice heard. I want to let people know that's a reality," said Marie Yuille, a sophomore at Oakland Mills High School.

The 60-person planning team spent about a year planning the summit, while working to make changes in the community that directly affect teens. As a result of their efforts, students in many high schools now have a regular study hall. Also, preliminary plans are being discussed for a youth commission in Howard County.

After attending last year's summit, Sami Hawkins realized her voice could finally be heard.

"I've always wanted to help improve the community, but I've never known how," said Hawkins, a sophomore at Centennial High School and a planning team member. "It's great that anyone can get involved and make a difference. Everyone's voice is needed."

Twelve community-based organizations sponsored the summit. Howard County Councilwomen Jen Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty attended as well.

"I hope kids learned how to use their voice today," Sigaty said.

For more information about Voices for Change, contact Elise Mellinger at emellinger@howardcountymd.gov or Meg Mekelburg at mmekelburg@thehorizonfoundation.org.

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