Youth symposium a success

Published 9:28 pm Saturday, January 23, 2010

Obesity, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, conflict resolution, gangs, Internet safety and proper social skills are issues many teenagers may struggle with in the 21st century.

To educate and create an open forum for teenagers to learn and discuss these issues, the Suffolk Office on Youth and Suffolk Youth Advisory Council hosted their second annual Youth Symposium on Saturday.

“I feel we’ve really gotten our message across to the kids here,” said Jennifer Branham, youth services coordinator. “Ultimately from this, our goal is to develop a strategy plan for Suffolk by listening to the youth and getting information about the issues they’re dealing with.”

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Workshops were held during the first few hours of the morning, followed by a video and question-and-answer session to educate students and parents about gangs. During lunch, students were encouraged to talk to adults from various organizations about different topics they encounter. There were also several local vendors – including universities, community and after-school programs and a conflict resolution center – set up and available to talk to students.

After the gang video, the youth were asked to raise their hands if they thought gangs resided in Suffolk. Every hand was raised. Then, they were asked if they knew any gang members. Many hands remained in the air. A few hands stayed raised when they were asked if they had been asked to be in a gang.

“There are about 10 really active gangs in Suffolk,” said Captain Stephanie Burch of the Suffolk Police Department. “But, that’s always a moving number. As soon as we identify a gang, we move quickly.”

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney James Wiser, Kenny Rice of the Suffolk Youth Advisory Council, Branham and Burch comprised a panel answering frequently asked questions about gang alternatives, prevention and consequences.

“If three people decide to rob the 7-11 and one is holding the bikes, one is a lookout and the other goes inside with a gun and shoots someone, all three people will be on the hook for homicide and robbery,” Wiser explained to the students. “It’s called concerted action.”

Parental involvement on all levels was spoken of as a instrumental in keeping youth out of gangs. Panel members said spending time with your teenagers, knowing their friends and influences and loving and validating teenagers are all powerful tools to help parents keep their teenagers out of gangs.

“If you don’t offer your child the family they’re looking for, they’ll go out and find one,” said a gang member in the video. The sentiment was echoed more than once in the following discussion.

Janis Myrick, a parent who attended the symposium, said the challenges facing her middle-school daughter are much pervasive than what parents might remember from when they were teenagers.

“This younger generation is exposed to more things these days,” Myrick said. “They’re so front and center now. They used to be more in the background. As parents, we have to be involved with our children’s lives.”