Seattle listens to the voices of its children

`THEY listen to you now,'' says Claudia Benitez, breaking into a grin. ``Before it was, `You're just a kid.' '' The ``they'' she's referring to are the people who make the decisions concerning Seattle's future: its elected and appointed officials. And the reason they're listening is because this city, like many other urban centers in the United States, experienced a sharp loss of families and children to the suburbs in recent years. Between the 1970 and 1980 censuses, its 18-and-under population fell by 30 percent, while overall population dropped by just 7 percent.

Seattle, in response, has put together ``one of the most unique and far-reaching'' efforts of any American city to address the needs of its younger residents, according to Randy Arndt of the National League of Cities. Claudia, for instance, is one of 40 Seattle teen-agers serving on a committee called KidsBoard, which meets every week or two to examine some ways that this city of waterfronts, steep hills, and rain can better serve, and hence retain, its young people.

She and her fellow board members take a certain glee in answering a reporter's questions.

One of the hotter topics right now is a proposed curfew -- midnight on weekdays for youngsters 14 and under. ``We're divided on that,'' says Jeff Jacobson, a lanky teen who forthrightly admits he got on the board because his mother suggested it might be a good way to help the city. ``A kid's voice was needed,'' he asserts. He's opposed to the curfew, thinking that ``it'll create more problems than it will solve.'' Others feel just as strongly that it's needed.

KidsBoard, which gives young Seattleites a means of being heard, is one facet of a project that sprang up two years ago in response to the declining numbers of children in the city. The project was dubbed ``KidsPlace: a kids' lobby for a vital Seattle.'' Under this banner, a coalition of city officials, representatives from the YMCA and Junior League, and other community leaders put together a lengthy agenda of things likely to improve the lives of young people here: support for children's art groups, development of bike routes, more downtown day-care facilities, and internships for high school students among them. Thirty items were spelled out.

In laying the groundwork for this agenda, planners asked children throughout the city to rate the things they liked and didn't like about Seattle. Adjectives from ``fun'' to ``bad smelling'' were listed on the survey forms, and youngsters wrote in the names of local places they associated with those words.

At a recent press conference kicking off ``KidsDay'' -- Seattle's annual counterpart to Mother's Day and Father's Day, featuring free admission for kids 16 and under at many of the city's attractions -- third-term mayor Charles Royer noted that there'd been progress on all but seven of the 30 KidsPlace agenda items. A program is under way to match youth arts organizations with corporate sponsors, for instance, and planning has begun for the bike route network.

At the same time, Mayor Royer underscored such persistent difficulties as teen pregnancy, the school dropout rate, and joblessness. He pointed out that some 20 percent of the city's youth -- mostly blacks, recent Asian immigrants, and native Americans -- live in poverty, cut off from the advantages enjoyed by most of the city's children.

Those are problems that can't be as readily addressed as, say, setting up bike routes. But they are clearly on people's minds here. The KidsBoard, for example, has initiated a peer counseling program to help keep ``at risk'' teen-agers in schools, with their families, and off the streets. Training in telephone counseling will began this summer.

Arlis Stewart, a YMCA staffer who works closely with KidsBoard, says the goal is to ``persuade kids that problems on the streets will be worse than problems at home.''

Ticking off other examples of concrete action taken by the board, Mrs. Stewart mentions the teen-agers' concern over city plans to redesign the amusement park at Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World's Fair and a favorite gathering place for the city's youth. The KidsBoard teens are going to ``lobby hard'' against a proposal to boost the park's revenues by turning it into a theme park aimed at very young children, she says.

Beyond these specifics, she adds, KidsBoard activities are weaving ``a pattern of friendships among youngsters across the city that is very exciting.'' In all, the program embraces 100 children, 40 on the central board and another 60 on three neighborhood boards, with many more applying for the program than can be accommodated. ``They're getting to know people who are different, and this will probably make a real difference as they develop their adult lives,'' concludes Stewart.

Mayor Royer likes to refer to children as ``the glue'' that holds a city together by bringing families together. He expects Seattle's KidsPlace program to endure now, after two years of getting established, since it's building a ``constituency'' among parents and politicians.

``It has heightened everybody's consciousness,'' says Jim Street, a city councilman attending the low-key KidsDay press conference. His little girl, Rachel, perches happily on his knee. ``Programs with an emphasis on kids have received attention they might not have received otherwise,'' he adds. ``And I think even the symbolism is worth something, as a message.''

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