It took one discussion question for the 40 community leaders, residents and youth assembled at Coconino Community College Thursday evening for a town hall to warm up, but once they got going, their ideas multiplied quickly.
By the end of the event, 13-year-old Emma Southwick, an eighth grader at Mount Elden Middle School, began to recognize the importance of her voice.
“It’s better to communicate with people than keep it to yourself because many people have different opinions and it’s better to learn about those than just ignore them,” she said.
Davilene Yazzie, Recreational Technician at Flagstaff Bordertown Dormitory, brought a table full of student residents, mostly freshmen, in the hopes of helping them become more outspoken on behalf of other Native Americans.
“It’s inspiring knowing what other people’s opinions are on different topics and situations from all around Arizona,” said 14-year-old LeAndre Frank, a dormitory resident.
The event combined a town hall with Lights on Afterschool, a national event to bring awareness to the importance of afterschool programs, which celebrated 20 years this week with 10,000 events nationwide.
Arizona Town Hall sessions are occurring statewide in about 30 different locations, with the topic “Strong Families Thriving Children.”
Courtney Sullivan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence, said youth participation in this event was critical.
“The youth are going to carry the long-term burden if there aren’t strong families and thriving children,” Sullivan said.
During the two hours they were assembled, participants -- about half youth and half adults, including Mayor Coral Evans, members of the Flagstaff City Council and other local leaders such as CCC President Colleen Smith -- were asked about the defining features of strong families, challenges faced by Arizonans and the role afterschool programs play.
In response, they voiced concerns about affordable housing, transportation, healthy meals and other local issues, noting the importance of families who spend quality time together and the ability of afterschool programs to fill in the gaps when parents and children cannot be together.
Tara Jackson, president of Arizona Town Hall, took notes throughout the discussion to draft community statements on this topics, the final versions of which will be posted online within the next week.
“Afterschool programs can make or break our children and our families,” read one statement, noting the influences of these programs on student growth, education, support and safety. “Afterschool programs help to make happy children and strong families. They are essential.”
According to the “America After 3PM” report by the Afterschool Alliance, which hosts Lights on Afterschool, Arizona ranks sixth in the top states for afterschool programs due to “the exceptionally high number of parents who report satisfaction with various aspects of their child’s afterschool program.”
Those in attendance at the Flagstaff town hall expressed equal pleasure with such programs.
“My favorite part is how you can connect with other children,” said 12-year-old Evan Maestas, who attended the town hall alongside fellow members of the Boys & Girls Club of Flagstaff.
Statements created locally will be brought to the statewide town hall for additional discussion next month, alongside statements from other communities, and will later be presented in legislative sessions.
At the end of the evening, each attendee walked away with at least one action item they created to help guide them in improving “Strong Families Thriving Children” locally. These items included objectives to be kind, volunteer more and to share what they had learned with others.
“We want everyone to walk away knowing that they have the power to help make a difference,” Jackson said.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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