Preparing Today’s Youth to Be Tomorrow’s Leaders

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2020 Roswell Summer Day Camp participants and the Earth Balloon the city uses in its environmental education efforts.

Youth engagement programs can come in many shapes and sizes and are vital to youth development.

In Newnan, children are learning how to play guitars. In Dalton, they’re learning leadership and basic life skills. In Roswell, students are learning about water, recycling and environmental issues. And across the state, students of all ages can learn civic engagement.

Though the programs are different, the goal is the same: educate, inform and engage the future citizens and leaders of tomorrow through organized youth engagement programs. Along the way they learn responsibility, perseverance, leadership skills and also build self-confidence.

Learning to Play the Guitar and So Much More

On Wednesday afternoons in Newnan, it’s not unusual to see young kids filing into the police station carrying guitars. They gather in the department’s training room for an hour-long guitar lesson as part of the city’s Guitars Not Guns program.

In addition to learning basic guitar skills, children are also picking up important life skills – perseverance, self-discipline and self-confidence. They also have some fun.

Newnan “Guitars Not Guns” students and instructors practicing at the city’s police department.

Guitars Not Guns is a national program, started by a California couple in 2000, targeted at foster children and at-risk youth from ages 8-18. There are currently 19 chapters in 12 states around the country. The Newnan Police Department adopted the program in 2015 as part of its newly-formed Community Resource Unit. Sgt. Edward Lee, who oversees the program, filled the first class by getting the word out however he could – through the school system, the housing authority and even knocking on some doors.

The class is designed for 10 students, but Lee says that as long as they have enough volunteer instructors, they take as many children – sometimes as high as 20 – as they can. Free guitars are provided to each student. Weekly lessons are taught by volunteers – some of whom are police officers –and the only requirement is that students practice during the week, documented on a log sheet that must be signed by a parent. The class culminates in a performance to showcase what they’ve learned in 10 weeks. When they complete the class, they may keep the guitar and are eligible to sign up for a second session.

The city of Newnan pays $1,000 per class to receive the guitars and music books, which is covered through donations and fundraisers. The rest is subsidized by Guitars Not Guns.

Lee says nearly 300 youth have gone through the program since 2015, and some have returned to teach the class. He’s seen nothing but positive results.

“These children are our future,” says Lee. “We have to give them the opportunity to grow and learn and help them find their hidden talents to show them what they are capable of doing. They don’t know what they can accomplish unless they try.”

Leveling Up for Success

Setting students up for success is also the goal for Dalton’s “LevelUP” program created by Audrey Simmons, assistant manager at the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department. For 20 years, she had a vision of creating a leadership development program where adolescents’ creative, emotional, physical and mental needs could be served and nurtured in one place. When she took the job at the Parks and Recreation Department in 2018, she found a place for her vision.

“Becoming a part of that team opened the door of opportunity for this vision to manifest slowly, but surely,” Audrey says. “I even mentioned it in my job interview.”

Dalton’s LevelUP meets three days a week and is for youth in seventh through eleventh grade.

LevelUP was introduced in Dalton in 2019. Simmons, a licensed counselor, designed the program with the “whole child” in mind, so they tackle all kinds of issues. The group – 12 students ranging in age from seventh through eleventh grades – meets three times a week, with a different focus each day. Mondays they work in groups and discuss what Simmons calls the “Four Pillars of Leadership:” integrity, commitment, attitude and vision. On Wednesdays, leaders focus on academic skills such as SAT vocabulary, math games, word problems and learning activities like playing chess. They also meet with their mentors, which is vital to the contingency of the program. Saturday sessions are reserved for community service. Simmons notes that the current structure has been adjusted due to pandemic guidelines, and will return to its original set up as soon as it is safe.

Simmons loosely bases the curriculum on John Maxwell’s book “Leading from the Lockers,” but keeps it flexible enough to change it and tailor it to specific needs. For example, last year when social injustice was at the forefront, Simmons focused group discussions on First Amendment rights. Guest speakers included members of the police, and representatives from state and local government. The group also visited the courthouse to learn more about the judicial system.

“We wanted to inform the young leaders of their First Amendment rights and how to use them in their communities, schools, social groups and homes in an effective way,” Simmons says. “And also how to use their voices and be heard.”

The program is funded through the city, and participants must apply. LevelUP runs three sessions a year (which has been disrupted because of the pandemic), and 32 youth have completed the program since its inception.

Simmons says some of them transform before her eyes.

“In one session, we were teaching creative expression, and a student refused to read her creation out loud,” remembers Simmons. “We encouraged and empowered her until she finally found the courage and confidence to read it. By the end of the 10 weeks, she overcame her fear of speaking in front of others and received recognition as the most developed leader. She never looked back and her confidence level has remained consistent. To me, that is success.”

Making Environmental Education Fun

When she is visiting a classroom, Nikki Belmonte, environmental education coordinator for the city of Roswell’s Public Works Department and executive director of Keep Roswell Beautiful, likes to ask children where their water comes from.

Nikki Belmonte, Environmental Education Coordinator with Roswell, engaging with participants in the city’s 2020 Summer Day Camp.

“It’s an interesting exercise” says Belmonte. “Probably half don’t know or give the wrong answer.”

Through free educational outreach programs, Belmonte answers that question and many others centered around the environment and ways to protect it. She provides hands-on, grade appropriate activities to schools, community groups and civic organizations. She offers classroom activities, teacher training and also visits after-school programs and summer camps to incorporate environmental lessons.

She’ll bring the “Earth Balloon” to schools and organizations, allowing students to sit inside a 22-foot diameter vinyl balloon to learn about geography, the environment, population, pollution and many other topics. Students can also take part in stewardship programs like the Great American Cleanup or Adopt-A-Stream. These are activities available to all public and private school students in Roswell. In the last five years, they’ve offered 80 in-classroom programs and have reached 6,600 of Roswell’s students through their education programs.

Belmonte sees it as developing responsible stewards of the environment.

“We are influencing children and teaching them good habits at an early age,” she says. “They are naturally curious and want to learn and do good for the environment.”

Promoting Civic Engagement

While the above programs are focusing on specific cities, the goal of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement is to impact students of all ages across the state.

“Civic engagement is a big part of positive youth development.” says Randell Trammell, the Center’s founder and chief executive officer. “We exist to educate and equip students to become informed and active citizens and we’re always happy to work with local governments as they develop youth engagement initiatives.”

Students participating in the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement’s Model United Nations program.

Located in Cartersville, the Center provides statewide programs that promote self-esteem, leadership skills, a sense of civic responsibility and community improvement through school and community service projects.

Programs include Model United Nations, mock elections, Youth Assembly and Model State Legislature, just to name a few. They also reach thousands of elementary, middle and high school students through their more than 100 chapters in 80 Georgia counties.

Some of these programs were created through the State YMCA of Georgia, founded in 1919 to serve young men. The first boys’ chapter was at Fort Valley High School. Douglas High School joined as the first women’s chapter in 1929. Trammell says since 1919, 1.5 million Georgia students have been impacted by the Y’s youth development program. In 2017, Trammell introduced a civic engagement piece to the program, calling it the Center for Civic Engagement. The Center broke ties with the YMCA in January 2021.

According to the 2019 Georgia Civic Health Index – which “examines the way Georgians interact with each other, with their communities and with political life” – Georgia ranks at the bottom compared to the national average in social connectedness, community involvement and political activism. And these are things Trammell is trying to change with the younger generation.

“Our youth will transition into the jobs that adults have now,” Trammell says. “We need to key up the pipeline and make sure they are informed, interested and prepared, by giving them opportunities to exercise their civic duty.”

Read part seven of this 12-part series, “Grooming Employees for the Future.”

Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

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