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The plight of Toledo's young people has become a focal issue at One Government Center, as a stretched recreation budget, high teen unemployment, and fears of escalating violence over the summer coalesce into a scramble by city officials to address youth problems in the city.
Both Mayor Mike Bell's office and city councilmen have advanced initiatives this year targeting youth, including two teen job fairs; a youth summit; an expanded summer program for high-schoolers, and efforts to get young people themselves involved in advocating for their peers.
One key effort is a plan to re-establish the city's defunct Youth Commission, a city-led body that works with community representatives to address youth concerns and policy issues. The commission effectively fell apart in 2008 after the city eliminated funding for its staff. But earlier this year, council allocated $57,350 in the budget to hire a new youth commission director. Mayor Bell has nominated former Youth Commission staffer Rosalinda Contreraz-Harris for the position, and her office is working with council to reformulate a 20-member commission made up of school, business, and community leaders.
A major difference in the commission's makeup this time will be a greater emphasis on the incorporation of young people. Six youths -- one from each council district -- will be chosen to sit on the commission to represent their area, and work closely with district councilmen to communicate youth concerns. The selected youths will also be part of a larger Youth Advisory Committee, with 12 additional youth members, which will report to the commission. To further encourage input from young people, each of the young commission members will be asked to convene a "District Youth Panel" twice a year specifically so youths in their district can come together to talk about their needs.
Councilman Steve Steel said a specially convened task force recommended the new youth commission structure as a way to give young people in the city a greater voice.
"Having a structure whereby youth can make their voices directly heard to elected people and to the representatives on the youth commission is brand-new," he said. "We can talk about what we think youth need all we want, but this gives youth the ability to say directly to us what they want."
Youth commission members will advise the director on how to best allocate resources and attune city programs to the needs of young people in the city. The body will also work to develop partnerships with other Toledo organizations to expand opportunities for youth.
Meanwhile, the mayor's office is planning to host an educational program for teenagers this summer called "Summer Youth Engagement." Tracee Ellis, who oversees the program, said the city has places this year for 65 teenagers aged 13 to 17, about double the number of attendees in 2011. The six-week intensive program, which Ms. Ellis said is funded entirely through outside sponsors, aims to prepare young people for higher education and future careers. Students learn about different career options, job search skills, preparation for post-secondary education, life skills such as healthy living and building self-esteem, civic involvement, and community service.
This year, the students will also work on a global awareness project with 30 other young people who will visit the University of Toledo from overseas.
Students will also attend presentations and workshops led by UT faculty, local business people, and educators, Ms. Ellis said.
"There's no time for boredom or idle time," she said.
Ms. Ellis said she developed the program based on her own graduate research that showed many young people in the city struggle to make it through higher education and to find meaningful employment. Toledo needs to do everything it can to help its youth succeed, she said.
"These are our future leaders. These are our future citizens. If we don't contribute to their development, what kind of future are we going to have?" she said. "This is the way to do it. To prepare them and train them."
Other youth-focused initiatives from the mayor's office have included a youth summit and two teen job fairs, the latest of which was held last weekend at the Erie Street Market. About 500 people between the ages of 15 and 19 filed job applications within the first hour of the event on Saturday. Employers at the fair included TARTA, Taco Bell, Wendy's, The Blade, Russ' Auto Wash, and the Park Inn Hotel.
"These jobs will get [teens] off the streets, increase their confidence," said Bill Stewart, special assistant to the mayor. "I mean, you start feeling good about yourself once you've got a little money in your pocket."
Recreational opportunities for youth are the focus of another initiative, set up by councilmen Lindsay Webb and Mr. Steel. The Recreation District Steering Committee includes representatives from organizations such as the YMCA and United Way, and aims to come up with a plan to address recreation shortfalls amid declining budgets and economic challenges.
Ms. Webb said she expects the plan to be completed in June.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at email@example.com or 419-724-6272.