|Posted by Dr. Jessica Spencer on October 26, 2011 at 9:10 AM|
EAST COUNTY — As far back as Southeast High School student Becky O’Brien can remember, she’s wanted to go into politics.
So as O’Brien sat at a table Oct. 22 with a dozen other youth from throughout Manatee County, she couldn’t help but feel like part of her dream was coming true.
The Hidden Oaks resident is one of 17 Manatee County High School students participating in the newly formed Manatee Youth Commission, an initiative designed to connect youth to local government officials and influence policy making.
“I’ve always dreamed of being a politician, so when I found out about the Youth Commission, I was drawn by the opportunity of experiencing government first-hand and the potential for influencing decisions that affect Manatee County youth like myself,” O’Brien said. “We are the future of Manatee County. I think it’s important for youth to be involved in the decision-making processes of today, as we will be the ones ultimately affected by their future outcomes.”
Saturday’s orientation at the Manatee County Central Library was the commission’s first official meeting. District 67 state Rep. Greg Steube and Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen, both in their 30s, spoke as part of the program.
“The purpose of (Saturday’s event) was to start identifying issues that are important to the teens,” Youth Commission Program Coordinator Victoria Bell said. “It’s very important youth are represented (in decision making), because they are the consumers of these (county) services. They’re living out what’s going on and could provide insight into solutions (for problems affecting youth).”
Over the next year, program participants will attend local government and community meetings, survey their peers about issues affecting youth, select issues affecting teenagers and work to develop solutions and policies to address those issues, among other tasks. Students also will create written or verbal reports and recommendations, which they will present to governing officials and/or advisory boards for consideration.
“The impact (this could have) on how we spend money can be huge,” said Jennifer Radebach, a member of the Children’s Service Advisory Board. Based on feedback Saturday from students, she said, “We’re a little off the mark on what the needs are.”
Students said they were eager to tackle issues youth are facing.
“It was great to sit in a room full of youth as anxious to make a difference in their community as I am,” O’Brien said. “It was inspiring to hear from Rep. Steube and Commissioner Gallen, as someday I hope to follow in their footsteps.”
Sixteen-year-old Meg Rivera, a Lakewood Ranch resident and student at Southeast High School, agreed the commission’s objectives are exciting.
“(This program) gives the youth of our community a chance to voice our opinions about issues that affect us,” Rivera said. “The benefit of having youth involved is that we become more aware of our community and how it is governed. We see the issues facing our generation first-hand so we are able to offer suggestions on what would work best to help change them.”
Manatee County Public Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal already has asked youth commission members to weigh in on the School Board’s redistricting plans during a meeting Nov. 8, Bell said. Students also will attend part of the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners meeting and tour county facilities Dec. 8, as part of “Manatee County Youth in Government Day.”
Manatee County is partially funding the initiative through its Children’s Services dedicated millage. Additional funding comes from private donations. Organizers hope the program will be funded fully by private contributions in the near future.
For more information, visit www.manateeyouthcommission.com.
Contact Pam Eubanks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The commission’s main objectives will be to improve services that affect young people, inform local leaders of youth perspectives, provide opportunities for youth to develop real-world skills and experiences and provide annual reports to governing bodies verbally or in writing.