How youth engagement activities can enrich our communities

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Sabrina Almeida

Never heard of National Youth Week? Me neither… till a media announcement about it caught my attention a few days ago.

For the uninitiated, May 1 to 7 was designated National Youth Week (NYW) more than 12 years ago in 2007 to recognize young people’s active participation in the community. What began with an attempt to raise awareness by sharing stories online has grown at a snail’s pace to include celebratory events in a handful of Canadian cities.

The few reports I stumbled on during my Internet search for more information revealed events in Toronto, Mississauga and British Columbia. And some youth organizations. Perhaps (and hopefully) there are many more but not widely publicized.

That most of us are oblivious of this initiative indicates the critical need to step up awareness and youth engagement efforts within the community. Recognizing their achievements on a larger scale is likely to motivate them to do more.

Youth being the future of a country, their development is essential to its growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, social and economic planning seldom includes this highly- impressionable segment. With the focus typically on children, adults and seniors—youth between the ages of 12 to 18 years (the NYW target segment) are a somewhat forgotten group except when they are in or cause trouble. I believe strong role models from this young demographic will be a more effective solution to youth crime than successful adults in their communities… and celebratory events during National Youth Week a way to reinforce and promote positive behaviours.

Broad guidelines of NYW events include recognizing young people (and youth organizations) for their involvement in a variety of meaningful activities in recreation, drama, sport, art, dance, volunteering and leadership programs. A wide range to attract diverse interests.

Youth engagement activities are critical to helping young people develop their talents, skills and confidence as they bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Not doing so means that both they and society miss out on the many potential benefits.

After all, these undertakings are of significant importance to tweens and teens as they empower them with life skills that will assist them in becoming confident and self-reliant adults who contribute to society.

Studies show that youth who have developed meaningful positive relationships with other adults in the community demonstrate better social and emotional development, increased social participation as well as community action. They are also better at problem-solving and decision-making when compared to their peers who are disengaged. Above all, they form an attachment and sense of responsibility to society.

While recreational activities take precedence over volunteerism and are more popular, it is time to champion community service outside of the mandated hours for a high school diploma, and at an earlier age. I’ve tried to encourage my boys to volunteer but they refuse despite my active involvement for more than 15 years.

In my opinion the difference lies in our childhood environment. For me, it was part of growing up. In India schools and religious institutions engaged in mandatory community service activities. We visited senior facilities and institutions for the mentally disabled as part of our education programs. It was not optional. Houses of worship reinforced community engagement through groups dedicated to seniors, orphans and the marginalized. It truly was an integral part of our lives encouraged by our families. Sadly, that effort is greatly diminished even in India.

A school of thought that youth engagement is a whole community approach to mental healthcare is definitely worth exploring. Especially since youth mental health issues are on the rise. Creating a sense of purpose and belonging can help mitigate the risk of problems  and their adverse consequences.

The extra-curricular nature of these community-involvement activities is perhaps the reason for youth disengagement. Community service should be integrated within the education curriculum. The focus must also shift from programs ‘for’ youth which can make them passive recipients to those that collaborate ‘with’ them. It will help youth get involved as well as proactively identify and respond to societal needs.

Let’s acknowledge the talent and skills they bring to the table by increasing their opportunities and motivation to be involved in the community. National Youth Week is a great way to support young people’s year-round engagement efforts.

 

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