U.S. Anti-Drug Funds Misfire, Hit Target: Teens Shape Planning, and The Department

Patrick Boyle
January 3, 1999

Terry O’Neill gets some funny reactions when he tells planning directors from other cities that he has two high school students on his paid staff. “It’s, ‘You want to employ a couple of high school students?’” O’Neill says of the reaction. “Why? How?”

But the way O’Neill figures it, his two youth planners not only help his department do its job, but they save the agency money.

He saw the impact that youth input could have when his department was finalizing plans for a local community center several years ago. As with most projects, the meetings where city planners discussed the project with local residents had been bereft of kids. “If we were lucky, some parents might bring some of their children,” O’Neill says.

But at one point some kids did come to a meeting about the center and were appalled by what they heard. One main activity of the center was going to be baton classes. “They said, ‘I don’t want a community center and I don’t want to learn baton,’” says Joan Kennedy, who runs the city’s Neighborhood Initiative, which is aimed at getting adults and youths involved in running their communities.

City officials started talking to more young people, and realized that they were about to build a center that teenagers would barely use. A new plan is now being put together with more input from local youth.

“The lightening bolt that struck me was looking at the expensive mistake we would have made if we hadn’t had young people involved,” O’Neill says.

Building on that experience, Alternatives Executive Director Richard Goll helped convince O’Neill to make youth a part of the routine planning process by hiring two teens.

In a different time and place, O’Neill says, “Somebody would have crucified me over using public dollars to hire two youths.” But the idea fit Hampton’s approach to youth as assets.

Courtney Meredith and Lakeisha Brooks, both 17, work 15 hours a week for $8.50 an hour. They share an office and have business cards identifying each as a “youth planner.”
A big part of their jobs is conducting surveys and using other techniques to find out what young people want and need, and to research what is done in other cities. “We find out what would be good for young people in the future, not just the present generation,” Meredith says.

The youth planners focus on four main areas of concern to the city’s youth, as defined through forums conducted with youth people: employment, transportation, youth space and community interaction.

For instance, Meredith is helping shape plans for a multi-purpose youth center. City youth helped the city determine that the center should be in a central location, at the cite of a new development near the city’s coliseum. As part of her work, Meredith has been using the Internet to research youth centers in other cities, to help determine “what a youth space should contain.”

Brooks is looking into transportation. “A lot of young people don’t use the bus system,” she says, which could impact the use of the youth center. She’s helping conduct a survey of how teens get around town now and what might make them use the buses more.

Youth have affected planning department operations in other ways. One of the biggest impacts was over city plans to create an 80-acre park filled with money-making attractions like softball fields for tournaments. Teens spoke up, saying they don’t need out-of-towners paying fees to clog Hampton’s fields. “It shouldn’t be for tournament use,” 16-year-old Mandy Tate told the Daily Press. “It should be for the whole community.”

She was part of a neighborhood steering committee that redrew the city’s plans, coming up with canoeing, different types of fields (including softball), bike trails, volleyball courts, and a library. The plans are in the works.

Boyle, Patrick. "U.S. Anti-Drug Funds Misfire, Hit Target: Teens Shape Planning, and The Department." Youth Today, Dec/Jan 1999, p. 39.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.