Equipping Youth as Leaders
Main Street, churches, a diner, and a bar. In these ways, Hoopeston, Illinois, fits the cliché of small town America. Community leaders saw their youth reflected in the PBS documentary Country Boys, a story of small-town young people searching for identity and opportunity.
The program brought to light issues and concerns for communities like Hoopeston.
“Serious issues,” said Kimberlie Kranich, outreach coordinator at nearby PBS affiliate WILL. “Drop-outs. Unemployment. Underachievement in school.”
To tackle the issues, Betty Seidel, Director of Development at Prairie Center Health Systems, had approached Kranich about using the Country Boys series to reach at-risk teens in Hoopeston. Together, Seidel and Kranich formed a partnership and began working with the City of Hoopeston and Hoopeston Area High School. Hoopeston’s church, school, and community leaders came on-board.
“What started with a desire to affect drug use and school performance evolved into an opportunity for youth to find their voices,” Seidel explained.
Residents recognized Hoopeston’s young people were falling between the educational and economic cracks of limited employment and opportunity in this rural town of 6,000.
“The kids felt they had no voice,” said Seidel. “Everyone wanted things to be better but no one knew how.”
The partners recruited and trained thirteen youth to facilitate community discussions around segments from the Country Boys series. Students also surveyed the high school community about youth needs. With WILL’s technical support, youth leaders created and distributed announcements, recruited business leaders, and facilitated a town hall meeting spotlighting youth and brainstorming with the community to address youth needs.
Powerful, perspective-challenging work emerged.
“The youth were the key,” Kranich said. “Country Boys was a conversation starter. Instead of adults ‘helping’ youth, we equipped youth as leaders. Then, things started to move.”
The mayor established an 8-member Youth Council. Big Brothers and Big Sisters helped establish a mentoring program linking high school and elementary students. Plans are underway for a Saturday community center for teens and a skate park.