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‘YES’ program fosters youth engagement

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As Sonoma County boasted boiling temperatures, and all possibility of a prolonged spring melted into a convincing summer, most students found poolside solace and began the slow, inexorable unlearning of the past nine months. However, 20 students renounced the typical equating of “summer” with “school’s out” and abdicated their throne of water for an ocean of civic engagement at the two-week-long, second annual Youth Engagement Seminar (Y.E.S.) – co-sponsored by the City of Sonoma, the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, Sonoma Valley High School and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

What kind of kids would willingly pursue school over summer? Perhaps attendees were inspired by a genuine passion for politics, leadership and learning. Perhaps they sought something more tangible, spendable even. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Days were busy: filled with discussions concerning leadership and government, budget planning and advertising work for a lobbying project, visits with leaders of nonprofit organizations such as the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, Sonoma Teen Services and Sweetwater Spectrum, and meetings with various city leaders such as Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola, Sonoma City Councilmember David Cook, Chief of Police Bret Sackett and Captain Brian Cyr of Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority.

An intensive program designed to engage youth with their Sonoma Valley community, YES was established through a collaboration between the school district, the city and local businesses.

The selection process involves a teacher recommendation, a formal application and an interview. Those chosen to participate received a $250 stipend courtesy of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

This year’s program accepted 22 students, all rising sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“We want the students to look on this as ‘a job’ and to treat it as such,” said Wendy Swanson, SVHS Work-Based Learning Coordinator who co-led YES alongside SVHS English teacher Veronica Gray.

However, YES alumna and SVHS senior Jacquelyn Torres was somewhat uncomfortable with the stipend because she hoped that all the participants would, like her, want to participate without any compensation.

“I was hesitant to deposit my stipend,” she said. It wasn’t until the following year after YES, when I was called into Mrs. Swanson’s office and asked if I was going to deposit the check, that I decided to invest that money in my Harvard education.” Torres spent the money on textbooks for two political science courses that she is taking at Harvard University this summer, entitled “War Crimes, Genocide and Justice” and “Political Philosophy.”

Torres returned to the seminar this year as a guest speaker, appearing alongside school district Superintendent Socorro Shiels and Britta Johnson, president of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board of trustees. Torres spoke about her experience as a participant of the program, her various leadership positions at SVHS, and her evolution from a special education student to an AP scholar boasting credit from UCLA, SRJC and, soon, Harvard.

“Overall my speech was drafted as more of an example of what these students can become if they put in the ‘ganas,’” said Torres, referring to the Spanish word for “desire” and “effort.” “If a first-generation college student, former English learner and special education student could accomplish the accomplishments that I have, so can the YES students.”

Most notably, Torres expressed how the program informed the political work she does now.

“I gained a lot of networks from this program, which helped me a lot,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to have Rebecca Hermosillo, field representative for Congressman Mike Thompson, step into my life thanks to this program. I was able to apply for an internship.” said Torres. “Fast forward to now: I have been interning for Congressman Mike Thompson’s Santa Rosa office for 10 months. YES gave me the platform to reinforce my philosophy of taking the initiative to ask for opportunities – even if that means going out of my comfort zone.”

For Torres, these doors opened because of one fleeting, pivotal moment during YES.

“I clearly remember (Hermosillo) leaving cards with her information on the back table and nobody grabbing one on their way out,” she said. “I decided to take the initiative and asked if she could give me one – which she answered with an ‘of course,’” said Torres.

“For those who are considering participating in the YES program, like any other program, it will be worthless unless you make something out of it,” she continued. “I would recommend that possible participants join YES not for the money, but rather for the knowledge and other opportunities it can create.”