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Mayors have teams of young advisersOriginally Published October 28, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 26, 2012 at 9:39 a.m.
Three groups of students in Saline County, almost all of them too young to vote in the November elections, still take an active role in their communities and bring their concerns and issues to the highest levels of the cities’ governments.
The mayors of Benton, Bryant and Haskell call on the members of their youth advisory councils in order to learn the perspective of thoughtful young people in their communities. At the same time, the young members of these organizations get an inside look at municipal government and how it works, while also learning leadership and the responsibilities of active citizenship.
“I wanted to find a way to give the young people a voice in their town and show them how to use that voice for good,” said Jeff Arey, mayor of Haskell, who started his youth council with students from Benton Harmony Grove High School in 2011. “I wanted to hear from them about what is affecting them in the community.”
While running for mayor in 2010, Arey made a campaign promise to create an advisory council of young people in his city.
“I was talking with then-mayor Rick Holland about [the Benton Mayor’s
Advisory Youth Council] early in 2010,” Arey said. “He had revitalized the organization and believed it had made a difference in their community. It seemed like a good idea to get started here.”
Arey created a committee with Darlene Emmons, then a Harmony Grove High School teacher; Haskell resident Clarissa Lumpkins of the Arkansas Department of Health; and Jill Henley, the daughter of Angela Ross, who was the volunteer coordinator for the Benton youth council under Holland. Henley also assisted with the Benton group.
“It is a good way to learn about the needs of their community and about how citizens can take action to meet those needs,” Henley said.
When school reopened in August, the second “class” of the Haskell advisory council began to meet. Members who were involved last year expressed a desire to continue the council program against texting while driving, Arey said.
Council members also took up the dangers students face when crossing a state highway to get to classes in Harmony Grove schools. Volunteers began a crossing-guard patrol in the mornings to help younger students cross the busy street between the Haskell city offices and the school system’s campus.
Volunteerism is another major part of service on the young advisory councils. In Benton, which established the first advisory council in the county in 2002, it has been a very busy weekend for the members of Benton’s Mayor’s Young Advisory Council.
“The kids will be helping with Spook City in downtown Benton this weekend. They will help decorate and set up and then run some of the games for children,” said Laura Stillwell, who was named director of the council by Benton Mayor David Mattingly. “They are also holding a pet adoption event in Hickory Square this weekend for the Benton Animal Control. They have helped create their Facebook page to let people know animals are available for adoption.”
Stillwell said the youth organization also volunteers and is planning a food drive for the Churches Joint Council on Human Needs food pantry. The members also volunteer at the Saline County Safe Haven shelter for women and children dealing with domestic violence, and mentor and coach youth teams at the Boys and Girls Club of Saline County.
As with all the councils, Benton High School students can remain on the advisory council for as long as three years.
“If they get picked in 10th grade and get their volunteer hours in, they can reapply and be on the council for three years,” Stillwell said.
The community service can help the students win scholarships for college, as well as training them in leadership.
The Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council in Bryant will admit ninth-graders in the spring, said Christine Bennett, adviser for the council and a business teacher at Bryant High School.
“We wanted to allow younger students to stay longer in the council and grow and be enriched over the years so they could later mentor new members,” she said.
Bryant Mayor Jill Dabbs established the youth council in her first year in office in 2011.
“This was one of my initiatives from the beginning to get the youth engaged in their city, in hopes that that kind of involvement will last a lifetime,” the mayor said. She said the 2012 class has been gaining momentum and defining its goals.
She said the young council members are looking at promoting recycling as a project. Dabbs said she is planning for the students to debate a controversial city issue before the Bryant City Council.
“They will debate if the city should lower the age limit to buy a day pass at Bishop Park,” she said. “When the Center [at Bishop Park] opened, some people just let their children run unsupervised in the place. We fixed that by raising the age limit to buy a pass at 18. The students said young people are being punished for the actions of a few, but they also don’t want that kind of atmosphere, either.”
The mayor said it will let the youth council members look for a solution with their peers, a process she said is not working well at any level of government nowadays.
“They will find that the solution they can work out will be better than any one single idea,” Dabbs said.
Youth advisory councils can be found in Maumelle and in some Northwest Arkansas cities, Dabbs said. She hopes to promote the idea with other cities, perhaps invite representatives from cities to a young council summit at Bishop Park in the future.
All the mayors have said their youth advisory councils are one of the most rewarding parts of their office. The adult directors and advisers working with the councils said the youth are an untapped resource that can add a great deal to the community.
“All of them have the potential to do something great,” Henley said, “even if they don’t know it yet.”
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or email@example.com.