By Elliane Yashar
Program Analyst - Child and Adolescent Health, AMCHP
Youth are frequently described as leaders of the next generation or as the future leaders of our country, but why should they have to wait to become adults in order to take on important leadership roles? Adolescents and young adults have important ideas to contribute around positive social change and are certainly capable of serving as influencers in their communities. They just need the opportunity for their voices to be heard.
How can such opportunities be provided? Although we may be fully aware of the numerous benefits around youth engagement, it can be challenging to start implementing programs and activities when we are dealing with budget cuts, staffing shortages and other impending priorities. Shelly Montgomery-Barth, manager of the Adolescent Health Program at the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH), has helpful experience and insight in effectively jumpstarting engagement programming for youth with limited support and resources.
Prior to her joining the WDH three years ago, there was no Adolescent Health Program in place – let alone a sustainable youth engagement program. As a new employee in a newly formed department, Montgomery-Barth began building the program by reaching out to experts in the field to see what had worked well. Her first step was working with a group of adults from statewide nonprofit and government organizations committed to adolescent health and to serving youth in Wyoming. Soon she was able to launch the Wyoming Adolescent Health Partnership (WAHP) through the newly developed Adolescent Health Program. The purpose of the WAHP is twofold: 1) to provide trained adult partners with opportunities to work with adolescents and young adults; and 2) to develop a state strategic plan for adolescent health addressing shared risk and protective factors across diverse programs and organizations.
Part of the WAHP includes a team composed of six compensated adolescents and young adults, ages 16-22, who will act as a statewide youth health council after receiving training in public health advocacy. The youth health council will work directly with a young adult hired part-time as a youth liaison who oversees compensation, food for meetings, transportation and coordination of the council. In order to create a part-time position, Montgomery-Barth reached out to her partners in the Wyoming Division of State Parks, and together they share a seasonal position dedicated to youth engagement.
Once the youth council is fully established this October, its initial goal is to determine a name, mission and vision. From there, the council will work to advise the public health division programs about how to reach and connect with youth across the state. Montgomery-Barth’s vision is that by the end of the fiscal year, all programs that target adolescents will have received input from the youth council.
“We’re extremely excited about that and the work that can go forth from there,” she says.
The goal is not only to engage a cohesive team of qualified and motivated adolescents for the council but to try to ensure the group is representative of diverse populations. Montgomery-Barth developed the idea for a “Self-Introduction” section in the job application to provide an opportunity for the youth to showcase their varying talents and diverse backgrounds.
“We wanted a lot of diversity, and you can’t just necessarily have check-boxes for diversity,” she says. “We really wanted the youth to be able to say what they have to bring to the table.”Instead of the generic personal statement essay question format, the youth submit their responses to this question in the form of a work of art, a video or a written piece. Montgomery-Barth emphasizes the importance of including youth with varied abilities, and this response format allows youth to showcase these talents.
Trying to implement new programs from scratch with limited resources can seem like an overwhelming and somewhat daunting task, but sometimes the hardest part is just getting started.
“You don’t have to start big, just start,” Montgomery-Barth advises. “If you don’t know what to do for youth right now, just ask them! Find where you can get in touch with youth, even if it’s just having conversations with your coworkers’ kids or going to the local Boys & Girls Club, just start talking to youth. It’s that easy to start.”
Montgomery-Barth’s hard work in developing engaging youth programming in Wyoming is an inspiring example of how substantial progress can be accomplished within a short period of time. Sometimes all it takes is a clear vision and the willingness to take small steps to reach the ultimate goal.