By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

When you are in high school, you worry when the assistant principal calls you down to the office. Paige Kendall was no different. She was terrified when, as a freshman, her name was called over the PA. 

The reason for the visit, however, was anything but punitive. In fact, it was an honor. Greg Werner, the assistant principal at Southridge High School in Dubois County, had a proposal. Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner was interested in launching a youth council in the city, and he was looking for kids with leadership skills to help get the project off the ground. Werner wanted to know what Kendall and five other students thought of the mayor’s idea, and if they liked it, would they help recruit classmates?

Kendall, now a junior, obviously liked what she heard. In the three years since her angst-ridden trek to the assistant principal’s office, Kendall has not only helped recruit others, but she’s been an active member of the council which launched in 2017.  And for the past two years, she’s been president of the 12-member Mayor’s Youth Council, which launched in 2017. It draws its members from the only public high school in the corporation with a student body of 531.

Huntingburg isn’t the only Indiana community engaging young people in this way. A growing trend, voices of young people are being heard in 34 municipalities in Indiana. Aim, formerly called the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, supports the effort, and now offers statewide programs through its Youth Councils Network.

“Over the years, we have learned from many mayors and town leaders that youth councils are a fantastic way to connect with students and ensure municipal policies and programs take into account the needs of citizens of all ages. They are also a wonderful pipeline to recruit talented young people into public service, by showing them firsthand how local government works and how it can be a positive influence on people’s lives,” said Aim’s CEO Matt Greller.

Huntingburg’s Kendall is also serving on Aim’s first Youth Councils Network state board and helped plan the annual Youth Summit that was held in February. For the past two years, the summit took place at Indiana University in Bloomington. This year nearly 200 young people attended the two-day event.

Another Aim program is its Youth Legislative Day, which took place in April. The event started at IUPUI and ended at the Statehouse. Part of the day’s schedule was to learn about the top issues being debated by Indiana lawmakers.

While each council’s number of youth representatives vary, as do the tasks they complete, the reason for their existence is similar. Communities from Fort Wayne to Loogootee/Shoals, Indianapolis to Princeton and Angola to Evansville increasingly are tapping into an effective way to allow young people to whom the long-term future belongs help plan for it.

So just what motivated Spinner to start a youth council in Huntingburg? It started with a simple question.

Mayor since 2011, his city earned a Stellar Community designation in 2014. This Indiana award began in 2011 and recognizes smaller communities, and now regions, that have collaborative plans for community and economic development and is annually given to two Indiana communities.

After Huntingburg received the award, someone asked the mayor if there was anything he would do differently. That question got him thinking, and he realized there was a gap.

“We did not have a lot of engagement from our youth,” he said. “So how do we fix that?”

It was at an Aim conference that he discovered a solution. While attending a session about mayor’s youth councils presented by several mayors and Jim Dittoe, he sought more information about how to get started. The NCAA had engaged Dittoe to develop a youth program, and he had also helped Frankfort’s mayor establish its youth council. Spinner realized a council could provide him ongoing input from his city’s youth. So, he, like Frankfort’s Chris McBarnes had done, invited Dittoe to submit a proposal.

“What Jim provided was that structure I was looking for. He had had experience with some other communities in forming the same type of organization. We followed his blueprint to get the first year together, and it provided to be very successful,” he said.

This week when Richmond launches its council, it will be the 21st municipality in Indiana that Dittoe has advised.

“I’ve had the terrific opportunity of working with young people who are very optimistic. They’re determined and they want to tackle the tough issues within a community,” said Dittoe.

“We want them involved now. Not just being told what to do, but coming up with ideas and solutions and the challenges of working with people in positions such as the mayor, such as the chamber of commerce. We want them directly involved so they learn by doing.”

And getting involved and learning is just what Kendall and Cameron Buschkoetter, a Southridge senior, have done. And the result has been to develop a passion for the community.

“We really want to focus on making Huntingburg the best it can possibly be and making us and other people come here, want to live here and make their life in Huntingburg,” said Kendall.

The council’s first project was to elicit more youth involvement in the “5-5-5,” a series of monthly 5K fun walk/runs that gives the community a chance to exercise with a group. Created by Mayor Spinner, they happen on the second Friday of the month from April through August at 5 p.m. Thus its 5-5-5 designation.

The mayor’s challenge to the youth council was more peer involvement. Starting with a survey, the youth council asked all the high school students what was missing. Their approach was through old-fashioned paper surveys distributed through the school’s homerooms. Then they tallied the responses. There were some surprises.

“There were a lot of people that said if (the runs) were more of a competition with teams, they would be more willing to do it. And honestly, we should have thought of that. Teenagers love competition,” said Kendall. The council created teams of four, and each month, the first entire team to cross the finish line won Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari Tickets. Over 100 students participated each month.

The youth have also named a new city road. One result of the Stellar designation was an overpass, which was approved as a city street. The youth council brainstormed names for it, and then submitted its choice, Progress Parkway. The City Council gave them a thumbs up. 

“They loved it, so we actually named the overpass in Huntingburg,” said Kendall.

With just over 6,000 people, the small southwestern community boasts the filming of a few movies, including “A League of Their Own.” And Buschkoetter, who has spent his junior and senior years on the council, said the city’s slogan “Like No Other” fits this close-knit community. He firmly believes that when he finishes at Purdue University, he will return. What he learned from this year’s project was patience.

This year the council was singularly focused on the My Community, My Vision program challenge. In its fifth year, young Hoosiers determine what their hometowns need to attract younger generations seeking vibrant living spaces. Each of the five communities selected were partnered with an IUPUI School of Public and Environmental Affairs’ graduate student. Huntingburg worked with Michael Hendrix. 

The youth council members worked to develop plans for a park in the community, and in April, presented their plans for a second basketball court and received $5,000 to implement a project. They also have presented their plans to the city’s Park Department, which provided them with cost estimates and have requested additional funds from the Dubois County Community Foundation.

Buschkoetter said it was a strenuous process that included meetings with a reviewer and creation of a PowerPoint to explain the project.

And while awards and accolades are certainly not the main reasons for these young people’s involvement, real dollar awards are making their projects reality.

At Aim’s recent summit, the Kendallville Youth Council won the excellence-in-youth-leadership award. The award honors a council that made lasting efforts to better its community and comes with $5,000 to support a community development project. The council opted to use the money on an alley improvement after learning about similar projects throughout the state. Communities like Frankfort and Angola have taken little-used alleys and turned them into gathering places for the community.

And adult politicians are benefitting, too. Mayor Spinner said the youth council meetings are the highlight of his month.

“They’re not afraid to tell me if they have a concern or what they think the community should be doing. Having the opportunity to have an open conversation with students in their high school is the most positive thing. It’s giving them an opportunity to learn more about the city, to learn more about how government works, to learn more about how to engage with other people and take a leadership role, they’re all positives,” he said.

“They can see that they can make a difference in a small community and they can have their voice heard, and they can have a real impact right here. And showing them the positive things that are going on gives them a feeling that this is a good community to be part of.”

The existence of youth councils has the potential to enhance civics understanding for many young people who are potential future leaders in the places they live.

That’s what happened in Frankfort. The mayor, Chris McBarnes, was elected at 23, and at the time was the youngest Indiana mayor. Early in his term, he contacted Dittoe about starting a youth council.

Now, Isac Chavez, a young man who was on that first Frankfort youth council, is graduating from college and returning to Frankfort, and he’s running for an at-large spot on the City Council (Election Day: Tuesday, May 7).

“It’s a terrific example of what can happen encouraging young people to become involved as leaders,” said Dittoe.

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