The following OpEd appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
Meaningful volunteerism and service-learning projects are becoming increasingly popular activities in workplaces. Volunteering increases community connection, purpose and overall well-being. While this is great for adults and employers, a key group of people often miss out on the benefits of service-learning: our youth.
Despite the robust youth civic engagement infrastructure in Wichita, area youth are statistically less connected to their communities than young people in other areas of Kansas. According to the Kansas Communities that Care Survey, in 2021, just 35% of Sedgwick County students in sixth-12th grade reported their community rewarded them for involvement, compared to 42% of students statewide. The same survey found that 44% of students in Sedgwick County reported a low attachment to their neighborhoods, compared with 39% of students statewide. These numbers reflect some of the current barriers to youth involvement in our area.
Wichita Public Schools, Safe Streets Wichita, and United Way of the Plains are working together to increase youth involvement and build stronger community connections among young people. These three stakeholders recently applied for and received a $15,000 national grant through Youth Service America (YSA) that provides funding and training on how to successfully create youth engagement programs. All three entities are now collaborating to plan events for the year ahead with a focus on student input and engagement.
Many of the existing Wichita initiatives that advance youth participation in communities are run or co-opted by adults. Young people are at the forefront of the decision-making process for the YSA events. Addressing systemic issues together and feeling ownership in their neighborhoods and schools will help area youth build meaningful connections with each other and their communities.
Area students understand what is needed to improve their lives and communities. Creating an environment where youth feel supported, motivated and confident to share their views helps produce inclusive, diverse and equitable processes in civic engagement. Removing barriers, like transportation to events, while encouraging cross-cultural collaboration will help our youth connect with people outside of their own schools and neighborhoods.
The activities under the YSA grant will launch during the week of Sept. 9th, with planning sessions and a virtual youth forum that involves community leaders. Once students attend one of these kick-off events, they will be eligible to apply for mini-grants that fund student-planned service projects. The funded initiatives will be guided and supported by young adults through virtual monthly discussions. A leadership day for all participating youth will take place in the spring of 2022. The day will consist of activities, free food, and an opportunity for students to showcase the service projects they planned and implemented.
Please encourage area teens you know to become involved in these events and reach out to Jadie Chauncey at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You’ll be helping them become part of a new generation of citizens who are committed to continually improving their communities.