Walton County Youth Advocacy Board Tackles Teen-Related Issues

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Walton County Youth Advisory Board

by Krystin Dean

Youth are not the problem; they are the solution. This is the mantra for Walton County’s Youth Advocacy Board (YAB), comprised of 40 high-school students that tackles complex teen-related issues by shaping campaigns and initiatives that affect every high school in the county, as well as the greater community.

“Through the YAB, I’ve been able to meet with state legislators, speak in front of our local Board of Commissioners, and help plan events,” said Cassie McBee, a senior at Loganville High School. “Joining the board as a freshman, I didn’t know anyone. This was especially hard for me, because I was shy and afraid to speak up, but I quickly came out of my shell. I’m a more confident leader in my community today, thanks to the YAB.”

Amy Hunnewell, director of Youth Development Services for The Partnership for Families, Children, and Youth in Walton County, said the board’s mission, since it was founded in 2001, is to engage teens and encourage them to advocate for healthy choices.

“YAB members come from different towns, schools, backgrounds, experiences, strengths, and skills,” said Hunnewell. “Their common denominator is a genuine wish to make Walton County a better place for young people.”

The YAB aims to initiate conversations about teen issues in a way that’s not only informative, but also motivates positive change. Under the direction of The Partnership, the board plans and executes service projects such as the Safe Brains mental health initiative, which exposes the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain. The group is also planning a Youth Health Fest to provide information on topics like drug and alcohol abuse, sexual health, stress management, and nutrition.

Dena Huff, The Partnership’s executive director, noted the students’ resourcefulness when faced with challenges like limited funding in order to put ideas into action. “If you’re shut down on one avenue, you think of a different way. Nothing’s impossible,” she said. “That is what’s so great about these kids—they are all creative and think of different ways to do things. And just knowing they have to be committed and dedicated to something will make them better leaders in the future.”

As a former YAB member and the board’s advisor, Hunnewell has experienced firsthand YAB’s far-reaching influence. “Many members come back to Walton County and serve in leadership positions—not because they have nowhere else to go—but because they love Walton County and feel they can make an impact,” she said. “We’ve seen more organizations incorporate opportunities for youth to serve after seeing YAB’s continued success.”

According to Hunnewell, The Partnership’s ongoing support has been integral to keeping the program alive and flourishing. “Not only has The Partnership provided funding and space, it has provided room for the youth to grow and truly act on topics they’re interested in,” she said. “Without The Partnership’s support, the YAB certainly wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Community entities, including the Walton County Board of Commissioners, Walton County Foundation, Walton EMC, and Georgia Teen Institute, that recognize the group’s importance, invest in the YAB as well. The school system also recognizes YAB’s value to the county.

“Our partnership with the school system is one of the reasons the YAB has been such a long-standing and successful organization,” said Hunnewell. “Each school is incredibly supportive, hosting and promoting events or campaigns. Teachers, counselors, and staff also help identify and recruit new YAB members.”

Walton legislative breakfast with YAB

The YAB meets with state legislators every year to discuss issues that are important to the youth in Walton County. Board members visited the Capitol in 2015 as part of a Voices for Prevention event to speak with legislators about why prevention matters, and they recently chose to spotlight adolescent mental health.

“They asked legislators not only to remember the importance of early diagnosis and treatment, but also to include youth in shaping health-related policies that affect them,” Hunnewell said.

Myles Fulton, a sophomore at Walnut Grove High School, credits YAB for enriching his life. “We focus on fellowship with each other and people in our community,” he said. “My involvement with the board has made me a stronger public speaker and taught me about topics that affect physical, mental, and family health. It’s helping to make me a much better person.”

Find out how The Partnership for Families, Children, and Youth keeps its legislators informed about the conditions for children and families in Walton County.