Each school year, Valparaiso Mayor Matt Murphy puts together a Youth Council composed of students entering 11th grade. These students represent the city’s youth, build leadership skills, interact with local elected and appointed city officials, and learn more about how their local government works and operates day-in and day-out.
Murphy established the program in 2021 with an eye on helping youth both see behind doors that are often closed to them and creating more informed citizens. The 2022 Youth Council just wrapped up its tenure and had the chance to address the city council and explain the impact of the students’ time working with the mayor and the city.
“During our meetings, we would spend time interacting with different city officials and learning about our government collaboratively and socially,” said Youth Council Member Carolyn Boxum. “Our typical meeting would entail listening to a certain city worker, then furthering our learning through an activity or application.”
Boxum shared her experiences talking with officials from different city departments and learning how they operate day-to-day, from parks and recreation to public works and engineering. The council even had a chance to meet with the city’s police and fire departments, experiencing some of their training first-hand at the MAAC Center.
“Everything we learned is related to the duties and functionalities of the city,” said Youth Council Member Niko Hambesis. “We learned more about the Board and had a chance to meet every councilperson here.”
When the 2022 council was sworn in last August, they took a survey that asked about their understanding of city governments, the community’s needs, as well as their thoughts on their own leadership abilities. Of the 15 students, just three answered “yes” when asked if they understood how local government worked or what the mayor does. When surveyed again this April, all 15 said “yes” to both questions.
“At the start, a lot of us were strong on the leadership side of things, but we kind of lacked in the community category and our knowledge of local government,” said Youth Council Member Ava Smrzlick. “We definitely improved in the second survey. The council has allowed us to have better leadership skills, better speaking skills, conflict management, and more understanding of how the city works. It’s been influential and eye-opening for us.”
While most of the students said they are not necessarily considering careers in local government, they became equipped to make a difference in the community wherever they go.
“We wish to carry these values through our careers, schooling, and lives,” Smrzlick said. “We’re working to spread the word to other kids, because we really want this program to continue.”
The council took part in a wide variety of volunteer activities such as helping out at Hilltop Neighborhood House’s food pantry. They even organized their own event – the Mayor’s Youth Council Color Fun Run. Walkers and runners took on an untimed, 1.5 mile obstacle course and enjoyed activities like face painting, a bouncy house, chalk art, food trucks, and more.
Mayor Matt Murphy is accepting applications for the 2023 Youth Council until May 31 – you must be an incoming junior for the 2023-24 school year and be able to participate in the opening retreat on August 19.
For more information, visit the website here.