Engaging Youth in Creative Ways

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Pine Lake Mayor Melanie Hammet leads a Kids’ Town Hall in 2017.

Two communities find a way to involve their youngest citizens.

When Charlie Wardner was planning his sixth birthday party, he invited three fellow six-year-olds – and Melanie Hammet, the mayor of Pine Lake.

“He felt really comfortable around the mayor because she’d always treated him with such respect,” says his mother, Leigh Scott. “And she came!”

Charlie got to know Mayor Hammet by participating in the Pine Lake Tots’ Town Hall, a group of children under six that met several times a year to learn about the government and the city. The precursor to the Tots’ Town Hall was the Kids’ Town Hall, for children seven and older.

A little further north of Atlanta, the children of Johns Creek were creating works of art in a campaign called “Share Joy,” an initiative designed to bring a little happiness to school age children who had been shut out of school, activities and their friends because of the pandemic.

These are two examples of how cities are using creative ideas to engage the youth in their communities.

Making City Government a “Little Less Scary”

When Melanie Hammet became mayor in January 2016, she wanted to create a way that Pine Lake’s youngest citizens could learn about the city’s government in a fun, engaging way. She came up with the Kids’ Town Hall.

“We had four town halls for adults, but nothing for the kids,” she explains. “I wanted kids to have ownership in the city, and have a voice.”

The first Kids’ Town Hall met in the fall of 2016 in the courtroom of the city building. Police Chief Sarai Y’hudah-Green and Pine Lake Municipal Judge L’Erin Barnes Wiggins also joined Hammet at these meetings.

“I chose the building that might appear scary to children,” she says. “It’s a quirky building and could look a bit spooky. I wanted them to learn it is not a scary place.”

Hammet had a plan for each meeting, but no set curriculum, and maintained a relaxed environment all the way through. She only had one rule: No parents allowed, hoping to create a space where kids felt free to share ideas. During the sessions, which, pre-COVID-19, were held a couple of times a year, kids participated in role playing activities to learn how the court system and the City Council works, learned about the history of the city and went on walking tours.

Riding on the success of the Kids’ Town Hall, she created the “Tots’ Town Hall,” for children under six. Parents were required to accompany their children.

“It was ‘beautiful chaos’” remembers Scott, who came with then five-year-old Charlie to the meetings.

In keeping a relaxed environment, the tots were allowed to run around in circles, play and whatever else they liked to do. In one activity, they practiced voting and received “I Voted” stickers that they wore proudly. They also sang songs that Hammet, a songwriter, wrote just for them.

Hammet’s main goal with both of these Town Halls was to create accessibility.

“I want kids – even the little ones – to know that the mayor knows their names, and wants to spend time with them and hear what they have to say.”

In 2019, when the Pine Lake Beach area’s summer opening date was pushed back, a group of kids came to the City Council meeting and made their case to return to the original opening date. They made a thoughtful presentation and even offered to pitch in and help to get it open. And it worked – the beach opened on time.

Lucy Wardner, Charlie’s older sister, participated in Kids’ Town Hall and was part of the group that lodged a complaint about the delayed beach opening.

“The kids dressed up, were respectful and felt comfortable addressing the Council,” says Leigh Scott. “In Kids’ Town Hall, they learned that their voices are important and that their opinions matter.”

Because of the pandemic, Hammet has not held a Kids’ or Tots’ Town Hall since late 2019, mainly because the format is not conducive to a Zoom call. However, she hopes to get both town halls going in the fall. It’s a model she hopes other cities will replicate.

“I encourage all small cities to do this,” says Hammet. “Don’t underestimate how powerful the impact can be on kids. And be with them, don’t just let them watch you.”

Sharing Joy Through Art

The Pine Lake Kids’ and Tots’ Town Halls went on hiatus during the pandemic, but “Share Joy” was actually created because of the pandemic.

“We wanted to bring a little happiness and sunshine to families during a time that wasn’t so bright,” says Edie Damann, External Communications Manager for the city of Johns Creek.

The city partnered with the Johns Creek Arts Center and created the “Share Joy” art campaign in which children from kindergarten to 12th grade were encouraged to submit a piece of art. It could be in any medium; the only requirement was it needed to be 2-D and could be scanned. Children used paint, markers, crayons, colored pencils, paper and digital illustrations to create their artwork. The idea was they would do these projects as a family.

“We knew it needed to be something that they could do from home using things they already had on hand,” says Damann, “and they could do it together. We liked the idea of using art because it is so flexible.”

Damann said they had 50 submissions and winners were chosen in three categories: elementary school, middle school and high school. Members of the Johns Creek Arts Center Board chose the winners. All submissions are displayed on the city’s website.

“This was a fun, easy low- to no-cost project,” Damann says. “It was a community-based program solely about promoting positivity during a time that was a little dark and a little scary.”

By all accounts, the project was a success. Parents submitted their children’s drawings, and Damann says the comments with the submissions were very positive.

Her advice to other cities? Do it now.

“Don’t wait to do these kinds of projects when something bad is happening,” Damann advises. “It’s always a good time to share a little joy.”

Read part 10 of this 12-part series, “Setting Youth Up for Success.”

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

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