Youth speak up

Published 10:47 pm Monday, January 30, 2012

From left, students Mika Gilchrist and Kayla Vincent, facilitator Betty Montgomery of the Suffolk Department of Social Services and student ChiLinn Evans discuss teen dating at a Youth Empowerment Forum on Monday.

Young people from throughout Suffolk came together on Monday to talk about issues affecting the youth of the city.

The Youth Empowerment Forum, sponsored by the Suffolk Youth Advisory Council and the Office on Youth, attracted about 75 teens to talk about issues ranging from healthy eating to teen pregnancy.

A similar event was last held in 2006, when the Suffolk Initiative on Youth began. Jennifer Branham, youth outreach coordinator for the city, said the youth council wanted to hold the event again to see how things have changed.

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“Are they still faced with the same issues the youth back in 2006 were faced with?” she asked. “Do they have the same concerns?”

Amanda Hamm, chair of the Suffolk Youth Advisory Council, said the idea for the event began as a “Youth State of the City” event. However, organizers discovered most city department heads would not be able to attend, because they were working on the budget all day, so the council reinvented the event.

“Just going around and listening — that’s my job today,” said Hamm, a sophomore at Lakeland High School. “I want to be able to say, ‘This is a problem, because this is going on.’”

Hamm was excited to see what issues her peers were most concerned about.

“It’s really proven to be a very big event,” she said. “I think it’s going well.”

The teens discussed different issues in breakout sessions at different tables. Each table had one or two adult facilitators, as well as one or two Suffolk Youth Advisory Council members.

At one table, a handful of teens prepared to discuss the topic of teen dating.

“Teen dating is a struggle, pretty much,” said Mika Gilchrist, a seventh-grader at King’s Fork Middle School. “Nobody should date until you’re of age to date.”

ChiLinn Evans, a ninth-grader at Nansemond River High School, said she hoped to learn a lot at the event.

“I want to learn things that will help me be a better person,” she said.

Branham said the things learned at the event would help inform the Office on Youth’s strategic plan for youth services.

“We’re looking to them to provide issues, causes and possible solutions,” she said. “We need to look at what the youth want. We need to be concerned about the things they’re concerned with.”