On the Streets of One of the 100 Best Communities for Young People

Hershel Sarbin and Harvey Chipkin
September 1, 2010

Child Advocacy 360 is introducing a “Who’s Doing What That Works” series in which we track programs in communities that have earned recognition from America’s Promise Alliance as being among 100 Best Communities For Young People. The focus will be on the positive results and creative messaging strategies that keep these communities engaged.

The 100 Best Communities for Young People awards, an America’s Promise Alliance program presented by ING, recognizes and celebrates extraordinary community-wide efforts to improve the well-being of youth and end the nation’s dropout crisis. More than 350 communities registered for this year’s competition, representing large cities and suburbs, counties and rural towns in all 50 states. Winning efforts are as varied as local needs, imaginations and willingness to work together. Any community committed to its young – and acting on that commitment – is encouraged to apply.

The 2010 100 Best Communities for Young People will be announced on September 21 at a national event in Washington, D.C.

Here is the first of Child Advocacy 360’s series spotlighting winners of America Promise 100 Best Communities. It features a community in Florida that has earned the 100 Best Communities designation three years running – and hoping for a fourth.

Keeping Track of a “Potential Army” Of Volunteers:  How Simple Messaging Engages Youth and Community

Volunteer Manatee, in Manatee County, Florida operates myriad volunteer programs and might have 9,000 volunteers active at any one time – and it’s the youth themselves who organize and keep up with the programs.

Volunteer Manatee (which also does business as HandsOn Manatee and ManaTEENs) has been one of America’s Promise 100 Best Communities for three years running.

According to Manatee executive director Adraine McKell, “Our biggest success has been to put young people into leadership roles. They have a unique perspective on this. They don’t see the red tape and bureaucracy. We have committees of youth who have input in everything we do, and this year we are working with 9000 young people, all told.”

The organization dates back 25 years with the ManaTEEN program launched in 1994 and the America’s Promise affiliation in 1997 when that organization was created by Colin Powell.  Volunteer Manatee, says McKell, was one of the first 100 Best Communities four years ago and is hoping to earn the designation for a fourth year.

What sets Volunteer Manatee apart from many other community-based volunteer efforts, says McKell, is that “young people are originating and managing many of our projects. We are empowering people,” asserts McKell, adding, “Our mission is to confront unmet needs and fix them.”

While she says that good communications inside and outside her constituency is “the most challenging piece” of her portfolio, McKell adds, “Our advantage is that the kids are the advocates; they do the outreach; it’s very organic and doesn’t require a lot from our end.”           

In fact, Volunteer Manatee has tried a variety of communications approaches, including mailings to homes and announcements in schools. Finally, says McKell, “We have narrowed our communication to a twice-weekly e-mail that lists all the volunteer opportunities for that week. We don’t announce anything more than a week ahead of schedule. Some of our social service partners have issues with that but it’s what works for our program.”

While Volunteer Manatee generally leaves outside media relations to “professionals,” says McKell, the organization has been on the cover of U.S. News and on “Good Morning America.”

And there’s no question that Volunteer Manatee has success stories to tell.  Here’s one example from McKell: “At an Easter Seal Society meeting in Southwest Florida, a speaker reeled off a list of needs, including a wheelchair-accessible tree house in a playground. Two young people who were at the meeting, aged 12 and 13, came to us and said, ‘this is something we can do.’ I put them in touch with local architects and hardware stores to get help with supplies and design. Then I opened it to our potential army of volunteers – and it got done.”

Another example: “I was recently doing disaster management training for young people and mentioned our pet friendly facility for disasters, the only one in the state. A 14-year-old girl told me that 35% of senior pet owners share their meals on wheels with their pets. She suggested a pet food drive – and that we go out and deliver the pet food.”

Today, two years later, says McKell, “We have a system where youth aged 8 to 21 – one Saturday a month, do a huge collection of pet food and deliver it on 109 different routes benefiting almost 1,000 animals. That all came out of a conversation with one young lady.”

And it seems that other communities are getting the message about Volunteer Manatee. According to McKell, her organization’s initiatives are being replicated across the country – in Billings, Montana; Huntsville, Alabama; Macon Georgia; and elsewhere. While they are not, of course, called Manatee, says McKell, “They adhere to our guidelines as loosely or as strictly as they choose. We share resources and materials with them and there is lots of peer exchange where groups of their teens visit us and vise versa.”

And, says McKell proudly, “Two of the newer 100 Best Communities, Macon and Huntsville – are acknowledged replicators of Volunteer Manatee.”

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