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New Richmond youth feeling better about community

New Richmond is getting national recognition for its efforts to respect and involve the community's youth.

During an eventful year for the YOUth and Families Initiative program, great progress has been made.

The city's young people completed a survey in 2004 indicating that they don't feel valued.

To counter these negative feelings, the Initiative reached out to people of all ages to get them to connect with each other at Stakeholders Gatherings, to share ideas about how to show support for youth. They called themselves "stakeholders" because everyone has a stake in what happens with the youth of the city.

Since the first meeting last December, the group of more than 100 students, teachers, city officials and business leaders has worked to set goals for improving young people's view of the community.

It appears to be working.

Six youth members of the YOUth and Families Initiative Steering Committee traveled to Dallas, Texas Nov. 2-5 to speak at the ninth annual Healthy Communities Healthy Youth Conference. About 1,300 people from across the country attended the gathering.

Sponsored by the Search Institute, the conference theme was "Creating an intergenerational community". The theme worked well for what's been accomplished in New Richmond the past year.

High school students Simone Nickel, Lindsey Novitzke, Zach Jacobson, Shasta Feltman, Becky Suennen and Paige Vergin were the local representatives who presented the session "Make a difference in your community: Conduct a stakeholders gathering."

Adult chaperones for the trip were YOUth and Families Initiative coordinator Gretchen Bell and Healthy Families-Healthy Youth coordinator Bridget Anderson-Kling. Pat Shilts, retired Student To Student coordinator at the high school, also participated.

"They represented our community very well," Bell said. "They were awesome."

Nickel said a number of communities decided to create their own stakeholders groups back home and conduct similar meetings their towns.

A key part of the students' presentation was an interactive activity with the audience called the "Circle of Support."

To show attendees what it might feel like for youth who feel unsupported, Becky Suennen stood in the center of a circle of adults who represented supporters in a youth's life like an employer, coach, neighbor, etc. When Suennen yelled that she was falling and needed their show of support by catching her, and the people in the circle assured her they would catch her. The student was gently passed around the circle with adults "catching" her.

Vergin then instructed those in the circle to turn their backs to Suennen. The student would again say she was falling and again asked the adults if they would support her, but those in the circle were told to ignore her plea.

Several participants in the circle were brought to tears as they realized how isolated the teen must feel. They were asked if there were young people in their own communities that might feel that way.

"It made me feel even more supported," Suennen said. "Even people who didn't know me ... they cared."

Bell said said supporting young people pays dividends down the road.

"Resiliency research says that one healthy caring adult can make a difference in the life of a youth by giving the message, 'You matter,'" she said. "You matter to me. If a youth knows he or she has a network of positive relationships, or at least five non-parent adults who care about them, they have a greater chance to thrive and succeed."

Vergin said the exercise provides a powerful message to every community.

"Our community has to make sure every youth has a circle of support," she said. "And it's not just parents and teachers. It's everybody."

The students all agreed that the sessions they attended throughout the conference were very helpful and inspirational.

Novitzke said she was impressed with one particular presentation during the conference -- understanding how a teen's mind works.

"I'm kind of into that psychological stuff," she said. "I learned so much from that. It helped me realize some of the things youth go through."

The students each said attending the conference was an eye-opening experience. They were encouraged that so many different communities are working hard to better connect with youth.

"Some communities are just getting started," said Feltman. "But you can tell that everybody wants the same thing."

The local students were surprised to find out that New Richmond is an apparent leader in developing intergenerational links.

"You kind of got the feeling that New Richmond is a little bit ahead of everybody else," Novitzke said.

"It was energizing," added Vergin. "We were pretty pumped."

Bell said the students sat in on several sessions that discussed steps toward developing more healthy communities.

"They found that our school is already doing some of these," she said. "Our community is really doing a lot of good, positive things."

Bell said the students also came away stronger leaders from having attended the conference.

The students all appear ready to implement the goals established by the stakeholders meeting, she said.

"We had a lot of things to feel good about and feel proud of," Bell said.

One reason for celebration for the group came when Shasta Feltman was awarded the Search Institute's 2006 student scholarship. The grant will allow the student to attend next year's conference and to serve as a youth advisor in planning the 2006 conference.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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