By Emma Marsano | Special to the Almanac
Debates on education often revolve around the idea that preparing the next generation to take on the challenges of tomorrow (to indulge a common cliche) is our most important task today. But how often do those in power actually offer children and teens the chance to affect positive change in their hometowns?
A few months ago, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula (BGCP) and some local city council members did their part by conducting a leadership course challenging Menlo Park and East Palo Alto teens to propose solutions to serious problems in their communities.
A total of 14 students participated in the eight-week course: six students at the BGCP's Menlo Park clubhouse and eight at the East Palo Alto clubhouse.
Menlo Park Councilman Ray Mueller designed the course in conjunction with Jeff Feinman and Sean Mendy of the BGCP. "This is the first time here (at the BGCP) that we've become involved in city government," Mr. Mendy said. "We have had city officials come and give talks, but haven't had consistent, weekly interaction."
During the first part of the course, students organized themselves into small groups and brainstormed problems they wanted to research in their communities. Over subsequent weeks, the students contacted community organizations, sent out surveys, gathered information, prepared visual aids, and presented their chosen problems and solutions to fellow students and participating council members.
At the end of February, the students plan to present their proposals to the Menlo Park City Council. The final projects touch on "the issues of gangs, gun violence, drug use and bullying," said Mr. Mueller.
Among the proposals: Create a mentoring program to help young people feel that someone positive cares about them, while promoting higher education.
In addition to Mr. Mueller, council members participating in the course were Ruben Abrica, Larry Moody and Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier from East Palo Alto, and Catherine Carlton from Menlo Park.
Ruby Fong, high school director at the Menlo Park Clubhouse, said Mr. Mueller's encouraging attitude helped the youth gain confidence. "This kind of collaboration could mean the difference between complacency and higher achievement for the youth of this community," she said.
Mid-Peninsula High School junior Stacie Foreman said the program enabled her to speak up and be heard, and it served to acknowledge that "the youth of the Belle Haven community matter."
Josese Naivaluvou, a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School, said that at first, he was unsure of whether he could complete the course. "But with the help of the council members and Boys & Girls Club staff, I am now more confident with public speaking," he said. "I know that making a difference really does begin with me."
Mr. Mueller said that he and the BGCP staff agree that the leadership course should continue so students can put "their research into action in the community."