Feature Article - January 2008
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Reaching the iGeneration

To Get Teens Involved, You Have to Think Like One…Sort Of

By Dana Carman

Life or Something Like It

Teenagers might think they know all there is to know about life by the ripe old age of 17, but the reality is they still have a lot to learn. Parks and recreation departments have the unique opportunity to be able to offer teens a chance to obtain real skills and sometimes even real money.

Seattle Parks and Recreation offers what it calls Teen Signature Programs, which are focused on six core development areas: Leadership Development and Civic Engagement; Youth Employment; Service Learning; Sports, Health and Fitness; Arts, Culture and Special Events; and Outdoor Opportunities.

That's where project STEP comes in, falling under the youth employment area. STEP stands for Student-Teen Employment Preparation and is a six-week summer program specifically targeted at at-risk youth ages 14 to 18. Sixty students are selected through an application process and, working in teams of 10, they address a community need, whether it's a building project or environmental restoration project, and receive job and life skills training. There's a stipend for participating in the program and financial literacy workshops so the teens learn not only how to earn money but also how to handle it responsibly.

"Everything we do in our unit is geared toward helping students find that job or get that job," Mirabueno said. "I think a lot of teens that age are looking for things to do … be a part of their community, gain some experience. It's not a huge amount of money, but it's something."

Mirabueno also said that many teens who apply for the program are drawn to the financial benefit. "We've heard stories of them helping parents pay for some bills," he said. "A lot of them buy clothes and supplies for school. They gain a great appreciation for the hard-earned dollar."

Through a much different method, the Department of Parks and Recreation of Prince George's County offers teens ages 14 to 17 a way to do community service, learn résumé writing and interviewing skills, and attend life skills workshops through its Cotillion program. Again, there is an application process for selection, and young men and women are chosen for this 16-week program that also exposes teens to the arts, teaches etiquette, involves families and wraps up with the "beaus" and "debs" being shown off at a formal gala with 800 guests.

"We've found teens find value in the programs that go on for a long time," Clutter said. "Once you get these long-term programs, they start to snowball into more things with positive outcomes and keep kids coming back." She cited an example of a female Cotillion participant who organized a donation of formal dresses to disadvantaged participants as part of her service learning project.

Programs that provide incentive to the participants, whether monetary or otherwise, such as the Cotillion, can have long-term implications for teens. The community also benefits as teens are learning skills to help them become productive adults and they're performing services that improve the community. Partnerships with local community organizations are imperative to the success of programs like these.