Thursday, January 29, 2009

Teenagers in town

For a teen who is ready to get involved in our community, there is no shortage of opportunity -- and there are a lot of advantages. That was the message at Monday night's District Parent Partnership Advisory meeting in the new Middletown High library.

Justin Carbonella, coordinator of the city's Youth Services Bureau, led a panel of Middletown High students as they talked about their experiences with volunteering in town. A mix of parents and administrators made up the audience.

The students spoke about a wide range of community activities, from Link Crew, which helps freshmen adjust to high school, to Dragons in Action, which jumps in on community service projects all over town. One Middletown High senior talked about what a kick he got out of mentoring at Bielefield elementary: "They just think it's so cool to hang out with us, just shoot baskets or talk or whatever."

During question-and-answer though, some parents dug a little deeper into the question of what makes some Middletown High students get involved in activities while other students just hang back. Certainly the kids on this panel are involved in lots of teams, clubs and other school projects. What makes it work for them?

These active kids pointed to three main things that helped them get involved:

first, these kids have parents who support them, giving rides and engaging them in service projects from an early age. One Vo-Ag student named Julia made the following impromptu and eloquent statement: "I can't imagine what my life would be like if my mom had always said no instead of yes. The thing parents have to remember is that every experience a child goes through helps build who they are."

second, it helps if their friends are also involved in the activities, letting them multi-task socializing and service. Along these lines, any activity that offers "pizza" was a winner for senior Steven Benevidas.

third, it takes a teacher or some other adult mentor to link a student with the right kinds of community service opportunities. Several of the students named their relationship with Mr. Carbonella or Mrs. Neidmann (MHS school psychologist) as the key step in getting them started with volunteering in the community.

Bringing more kids into the community service projects at MHS is clearly a priority for Mr. Carbonella. And I hope he acts on the suggestion of one parent, Larry, who noted that community service shouldn't always be something done away from school for some other people -- maybe some of the more reluctant or inexperienced students could get involved in projects that happen right after school for 20 minutes or so. As he noted, a lot of kids can fall through the cracks when getting involved means getting a ride or showing up in the evening or on weekends.

The session also included a presentation on the Change ReACTion project, by MHS students Nyanda Maille, Pauravi Chhaya and Anne Machuga. With the help of a powerpoint show, they described the work that their group did last summer to study the way that the media affects the relationship between teens and adults. Through interviews and surveys with adults and teens in Middletown, they examined teen stereotypes. I appreciated how much attention they gave to asking good questions -- some of them were intriguing. For example, they asked participants to recall the latest media story that they had heard involving teenagers -- 72% remembered something negative and just 18% remembered something positive. Parents in the room were drawn to the slide that showed that more than 20% of adults admitted to "stereotyping" teens who were visiting their child in their home. As one parent said, you don't want to think you are making assumptions, but maybe you are.

At the end of the presentations, many of the adults encouraged Justin Carbonella to get a wider audience for the good work that these teens are doing. And at least one elementary adminstrator in the room was ready to recruit these active MHS students as mentors and role models for her students.

To learn more about the work of the Youth Services Bureau, check out Justin Carbonella's blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a product of Middletown High volunteer opportunities, I whole heartedly applaud the efforts and benefits to all involved.
Volunteering pointed me in directions i used to make informed decisions on what I did and did not want to do with the rest of my life. I made many connections that helped me later in life and prepared me for the workplace. I found a place in the underlying strata that kids group themselves and their peers into in high school; I developed a sense of belonging.
Only recently it seems are colleges placing equal weight on volunteerism as they do on sports, other extra curricular activities, or just plain meeting various quotas, when accepting students. I hope this trend continues.
I do not believe, however that volunteerism should be a mandatory graduation requirement- it then turns into almost court ordered forced community service. It really shows when a person wants to be doing something and when they don't in the overall quality of the service they provide. Making volunteerism mandatory ruins the experience for the kids who are really looking to get something out of it when they are forced to share that experience with those kids who do not care, but just want to put it down on their resumes.
Jen - thank you for bringing this subject back into the lime light-