Doling out nearly $3 million a year is hardly child’s play, but that hasn’t stopped the United Way of Spokane County from putting teenagers on its nine allocation committees.
Not that those teens - or a growing number who serve in other adult rolls in the community - would be considered children.
“I thought the best thing about it is I was dealing with adults on an adult basis,” said Flannery Higgins who served on one of the United Way panels when she was a senior at Lewis and Clark High School. “I wasn’t babied at all. I was one of the group. If I had something to say I spoke up.”
Higgins, now a junior at Colby College in Maine, said the community-service experience helped her focus her interests. She is spending this semester working in the Washington, D.C., area as an intern for the Center for Patient Advocacy and trying to decide if she wants a career in non-profit organizations.
The idea of youth participation came to United Way from Joanne Benham, director of youth services for the city of Spokane.
Benham had attended a conference in Colorado and met a woman in whose community the United Way set money aside for youth programs and let young people decide how to distribute it. Benham suggested that to Vic Forni, chief operating officer of United Way here.
“He said, ‘I’ll do you one better,”’ Benham recalls.
Rather than set up a separate category United Way here involved teens in the regular decision-making along with adults.
“After a couple of years it got to the point where we don’t even introduce them anymore as teen reps,” Forni says.
Do the teens make a difference?
One allocation panel was about to cut funding for a pregnancy-counseling agency because the adults thought the outreach service to schools and homes was wasteful, Forni recalls. They felt clients could ride the bus downtown instead.
It was a youth member who explained why pregnant teens wouldn’t do that, and the agency wound up with a 5 percent increase.
Overall, the experience has been so positive that United Way of Spokane County now includes a teen on its board of directors.
What’s more, the present chairman of the Chase Youth Commission, where Benham is director, is a teen. Three teens sit on the board of directors of Leadership Spokane. When the community sent a 10-member delegation to Philadelphia for last spring’s Presidents’ Summit on America’s Future, one delegate was a Shadle Park High School junior and another was a Gonzaga University senior.
The GU senior, since graduated, is Joe Poss who, at age 22, is running unopposed for re-election to the Nine Mile Falls School Board. Four years ago he challenged and defeated the chairman.
“I was never once questioned on my age,” Poss recalls of that campaign. “I was questioned about going to college and whether I would have enough time for the school board.”
Poss said he doesn’t like drawing a line to separate youths and adults, but his experience convinces him that young people have important contributions to make - as well as lessons to learn.
“I was a criticizer,” the former student body president says. “I got in the board’s face. I didn’t realize until I got on the board, ‘There’s a whole other side out there, isn’t there.”’
Poss’s observation is understandably like that of Michael Ormsby, now a 40-year-old Spokane attorney, who won a Spokane School Board seat 22 years ago, right after 18-year-olds got the vote.
“I learned they (his adult colleagues on the board) had as much perspective and point of view behind their issues as I had behind mine,” Ormsby recalls.
But while Poss and Ormsby both acknowledge their own eyes were opened, they both believe adults have learning to do, too.
Even at age 22, says Poss, his own thinking has changed and he benefits from the perspectives of non-voting student representatives on the Nine Mile Falls board.
“It’s good for all of us to get a different view, to see from somebody else’s perspective and find creative ways to do the kind of things kids want to do,” says Diana Wilhite whose daughter Shannon, now a senior at The Evergreen State College, served on an allocation panel while a senior at University High School.
“I think she probably pushed another perspective, one from someone more idealistic, because kids tend to be that way,” Wilhite says.
Still, there’s more to it than just inviting teens to pull a chair up to the table. That’s why Leadership Spokane, an affiliate of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, launched Youth Leadership Spokane.
“Students are being sought out to sit at table and share their opinions,” said Barb Richardson who directs the youth leadership program. But she worries that inviting youngsters in without preparing them is a setup for disaster.
“We can say to them over and over we want you involved but if we don’t give them the information and skills they won’t stay involved. They’ll be scared away.”
For seven years, that role was played by a city-county program called Student Leadership and Involvement. Anita Raddatz, who ran the program before it folded because of funding cuts, says both adults and teens had to get used to the new relationship. It was awkward because it was unfamiliar.
“That’s the reason there needs to be more of it,” she said.
Andy Rigsby and Keshia Shorts were members of the first Youth Leadership Spokane class. Now both sit on the board of directors of Leadership Spokane.
“It’s definitely an empowerment, but not just for me, for my age group,” says Rigsby, a Ferris High School junior. He’s also a member of the planning team for Bridging the GAP, an Oct. 10 forum that springs from the national Summit on America’s Future in Philadelphia.
“Adults try but don’t always remember back what their views were,” says Shorts, a senior at Riverside High School.
But besides supplying the adult world with that missing perspective, Shorts, Rigsby and other involved teens help connect their peers with community service.
“Kids in my school know I’m really involved,” says Shorts. “I get tons of pamphlets and give them out to those who feel there’s nothing for them.”
“It’s not about us helping the community. It’s about us getting others to help others,” says Rigsby.
Those connections are important. Richardson believes they give young people a vital ownership in the community and make it more likely they will stay here rather than pursue careers elsewhere.
“It’s a matter of preparing young people to step into your shoes,” says the Chase Youth Commission’s Benham. “You can’t just tell them what it’s like. They have to experience it.”
And while teens are learning the lesson in reality that Poss and Ormsby both mentioned, adults are learning one in idealism, says Benham.
“The older we get the more boxes we find ourself in. They (youth) can be visionary and creative when we can’t.”
Besides, she adds, “They have more energy than we do.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn
MEMO: Doug Floyd is an Interactive editor at The Spokesman-Review. Contact him via telephone at 459-5577, ext. 5466, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.<