Students help city set youth goals

Published 10:22 pm Monday, October 20, 2008

They are Suffolk’s future leaders — potential city managers, pharmacists, maybe even a president — and on Monday their careers in public service got a big official boost.

As 18 youth from schools across the city held up their right hands on Monday and pledged to “uphold the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America,” they became an officially sanctioned agency of Suffolk’s city government.

“This is the beginning for all of you of your leadership in the city,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said after the members of Suffolk’s Youth Advisory Council were officially sworn in.

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Despite the special ceremony, the group is not new. In fact, while its members were being honored at City Hall, the Suffolk All-City Gospel Choir was performing at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts in a program that sprang last year from the council’s work.

Still, the oath of office ceremony makes things a little more official and proves to the youth that their work is important to the city, they said Monday.

“Now we have 100 percent total backing of the city of Suffolk,” said 18-year-old Tyron Riddick, a senior at King’s Fork High School.

Riddick, who hopes to get a degree in urban studies from George Mason University and then return to Suffolk to put his education into action, said after the ceremony that through his service on the council he hopes to help “provide more positive avenues” of entertainment for the city’s youth.

Nansemond River High School senior Bianca Lascano, 17, agreed.

Recommended for appointment to the council last year by her guidance counselor, Lascano is the vice chairman of the council. She said she hopes to use her voice “to get more positive things for youth in Suffolk and to make Suffolk more exciting.”

The Suffolk Initiative on Youth sponsors the advisory council in cooperation with the Department of Parks and Recreation and with the assistance of the Office on Youth.

It was started, according to Youth Services Coordinator Jennifer Branham “to insure that youth have a voice in addressing issues that matter the most to them and their peers.”

Members meet twice a month and are “present at community events and civic engagements, conducting interviews and surveys and collecting and presenting information as a basis for obtaining public input in finding potential solutions that could be implemented to keep youth safe,” she said in remarks delivered as part of Monday’s ceremony.

The students are charged with advising the City Council on current youth safety issues, developing solutions for those problems, compiling and distributing information to increase awareness of those public safety issues and improving communications between youth and law enforcement officers in Suffolk.

They are duties the students take seriously, and their goals for the organization show a high level of understanding about Suffolk’s problems.

“I want to help bridge the generation gap between adults and youth and work with economic development to bring more jobs to our youth,” Riddick, the King’s Fork senior, said.

Fletcher Stephens, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at King’s Fork Middle School, stated his goals more simply, but they were no less important to the city’s vitality.

“I want to … prevent gang violence and teen pregnancy,” he said.

Asked whether he realized his membership in the group could be the beginning of a political career, he said, “I always wanted to be president.”