Sonoma teens attend Youth Engagement Seminar

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For the past two weeks, a group of 14 Sonoma Valley High School students has been attending meetings and workshops, greeting city leaders and learning about civic engagement in the Sonoma community.

The annual high school Youth Engagement Seminar (YES) wrapped up on Friday after two weeks of eye-opening involvement in the community. The program — jointly sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce and the City of Sonoma — commenced shortly after the students began their summer break, showing participants the ins and outs of various organizations, committees, careers and decision-making processes in the city.

From visiting with local nonprofit leaders — including directors of the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, Sonoma Teen Services and Sweetwater Spectrum – to meeting with civic leaders like Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola, Sonoma Mayor Amy Harrington, Chief of Police Orlando Rodriguez and Captain Brian Cyr of Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority, the seminar participants’ experiences served not only to increase their awareness of community issues but also, in many cases, to kindle new interests that may follow the students for years to come.

The seminar was designed with the intention that it would resemble a real job and the expectation that students would regard it as one, said program coordinator Wendy Swanson. Students were admitted to the YES after undergoing a selection process that required a teacher recommendation, a formal application and an in-person interview. Upon their acceptance, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation provided each participant with a $250 stipend for the two-week program.

On Thursday, June 20, the halls of Vintage House senior center resonated with lively discussion as scores of Sonoma residents of all ages assembled for the last of three workshops addressing the city’s housing crisis. At the front of the room, YES participants filled two large tables. Rifling through maps and statistics and scribbling calculations on napkins and note paper, the students debated their views on the future for housing in Sonoma. In an effort to determine the ideal rate of affordable housing development in the coming years, they deliberated over the effects of recent fires in terms of ingress and egress of residents, the economic principles of supply and demand and even the aesthetic impacts future development might have on the city.

After the participants proposed their views, they conversed and compromised, agreeing collectively on what they believed to be the most fair and viable plan.

YES participant Ben Hummel, an incoming senior at the high school, commented that the housing development workshop was a highlight of the seminar for him. Joining YES both to “get more involved in the community” and to also bolster his resume as he begins his college search, Hummel said, “planning housing development like this is a great opportunity to exercise critical thinking.”

Still, the housing workshop was one of many activities that YES members participated in over the past two weeks. Nathan Gutierrez, 16, explained that the seminar expanded his interest in possible professional pursuits.

“The program has gotten me interested in looking into different careers,” said Gutierrez. “Now I’m interested in becoming a police officer – or maybe even a housing developer.”

Several of the YES members said their favorite experience of the seminar was a mock city council meeting. Meg Jerrigan, 16, said, “Learning how to lead a city council meeting was a really valuable experience. We each assumed a role at the meeting, and it was interesting to learn about what city council members do and how their responsibilities work.”

Sophomore Jimena Echeverria was especially interested in the mock city council meeting. Echeverria said, “I enjoyed learning about local government. My favorite part of the meeting was the public comment section, because you have a chance to learn about the ideas of the people of Sonoma and consider their views in upcoming meetings. I like how one person’s comment can influence council members’ thoughts on an issue and the future of the city itself.”

Later in the week, the group boarded the new Sonoma County Transit #32 bus and took a short trip up the Valley to Boyes Hot Springs, visiting Sonoma Teen Services, Art Escape and La Luz Center. The students also had a chance to meet with Jordan Tabayoyon, owner of the new Sonoma Originals skate shop, and got a preview of the store which is set to open soon.

Retired NFL offensive lineman Tony Moll – an SVHS graduate – also met the students at the new shop – the cherry on top of an educational two weeks.

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