Young people with designs on their community

If anybody doubts that young people are interested in community development and design, consider the tales of two communities: Holyoke, Mass., and Auburn, Maine.

"We thought the kids might get bored attending planning forums," says Imre Kepes, spokesman for the El Arco Iris YouthPower Project, an after-school program in the Puerto Rican section of Holyoke. "In fact, the kids had a pretty good time."

Now, even before work officially begins on a canal walk, teens from El Arco Iris (Spanish for "rainbow") have created banners and designed a mural to decorate an arts corridor along the rehabilitated waterway.

In Auburn, Maine, students at Edward Little High School have turned 40 acres of wooded school property into a major community resource. They've built a 350-seat outdoor amphitheater, bike and exercise trails, and a large, landscaped entrance. The latest project: a greenhouse that may become a self-sustaining business and possibly generate funds for other programming.

Students have "laid logs, spread gravel, and dug holes for concrete support columns," says Brian Flynn, an English teacher who works with about 65 to 70 students in the team program.

But the projects haven't been without setbacks. For example, after students transformed a once-threatening teen hangout into an inviting trail, vandals smashed concrete trash receptacles and benches, as well as wooden tree placards.

The students who built the path organized a plan to communicate what happened to the school and community. Then they decided to adopt a more-natural look for the area, eliminating the concrete trash containers altogether and replacing the concrete benches with more rustic ones milled from oak logs. In the six years since, damage to the property has been minimal.

"The point is," Flynn says, "the kids didn't fold up their tent."

Other examples of how communities have involved young people in planning, social activism, and policymaking can be found in a booklet entitled, "Youth Participation in Community Planning." It is published by the American Planning Association, 122 S. Michigan Avenue, Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60603.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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