Most people who don’t live or work with high schoolers probably don’t go out of their way to spend much time around them, but by doing that, we might be missing out on some of our community’s most productive and thoughtful residents.
Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center’s (RCCHC) Hertford County Wellness Center (HCSWC) Director, Catherine Parker, is adamant that youth can be active participants in their community to guide positive change. “We want to create a community where young people have a voice and are invited to the table. Teenagers don’t normally have a platform to create community change, but when adults step back, they do amazing things.” says Parker.
The catalyst for much of the current youth led work began with the Youth Wellness Academy (YWA), a partnership between the Hertford County Student Wellness Center, the Hertford Health Maintenance Alliance and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation. It was created with the intent to let students pursue leadership opportunities, especially those who may not have otherwise had the chance to do so.
One such opportunity was the Photovoice Project, where YWA members were asked to examine community conditions and discuss how they are affected through photography. Photos taken by the students ranged from spoiled food, to empty storefronts, to decaying sidewalks, but also images of hope and opportunity. As a response to the Photovoice, youth services were identified as a priority among community partners for three years, and the need for safe and accessible places to exercise helped create the P.A.W. Path Walking Trail – a trail open to the public connecting Hertford County High, Bearfield Primary School, Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Service Learning Site, and town sidewalks. Youth Wellness Academy students also traveled to Raleigh to advocate for P.E. in schools, and organized “Destress for the Test”, an afternoon of relaxing activities to help students at Hertford County High School relieve stress before their final exams.
Students have also led an active role in the Farm to School to Healthcare program, a community partnership created to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables and safe spaces to be active in Hertford County. High school aged “Garden Stewards” dedicate large amounts of their time and energy over the summer and school year to maintain school gardens located at Hertford County High, Hertford County Early College, C.S. Brown H.S. STEM, Bearfield Primary, and Riverview Elementary, as well as Ahoskie Community Gardens where produce is grown to be sold at youth led farmers markets. At the markets, students take care of everything from manning the cash register, to giving out samples of healthy dishes they have prepared, to managing promotional social media accounts. Volunteers from the program also assist with its annual “Farm to Table Dinner”, whose guest speakers last year included NC first Lady Kristin Cooper and former NFL player Jason Brown, now the owner of First Fruits Farm.
The Hertford County Student Wellness Center, in partnership with Hertford County Cooperative Extension were also lucky enough to have three interns this year, Dacia Peele, Lindsey Stallings and Zach Wise. Among their accomplishments includes leading the charge on the “StoryBook Trail” where walkers can read pages of a storybook as they follow along the P.A.W. Path., along with implementing a garden art project at Bearfield Primary School. Parker states that she’s grateful not only for their hard work, but also their professionalism, and the valuable advice and input they have offered about programs the in the county.
“As adults, we forget what it’s like to be young and we tend to have a nasty habit of thinking ‘kids these days are so [negative opinion]’ without really involving them in the conversation,” says Parker, “I challenge everyone to engage with our youth. They have amazing ideas –and the option to leave. But we want them to know Hertford County is their home, and that they can make home what they want it to be. There must be a seat at our table for young people or they will find another table.”