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Youth Crew: New program boosts community engagement
Members of the Youth Crew are shown with bags of trash they collected Wednesday morning at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo. Youth Crew is a new coalition open to students in grades 6-12 who want to be involved in the community. - photo by Susan Thacker

Seven youths capped off their summer vacation Wednesday with a visit to the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo, where they spent part of the morning picking up trash. This volunteer effort was one of several community service projects for the Youth Crew, a new coalition within the Central Kansas Partnership.

Marissa Woodmansee, director of Juvenile Services, is in charge of the program with support from the Barton County Health Department and other community partners. She described Youth Crew as a coalition that gives kids in grades 6-12 a chance to get involved in their community.

“We started Youth Crew at the end of the school year,” Woodmansee said. Juvenile Services already offers All Stars, an in-school prevention program for sixth graders that teaches good decision-making and other skills, but members of the Central Kansas Partnership wanted a community-based program, too.

For the first meeting in June, fliers were posted in businesses and churches and the word went out that youths could have an opportunity to gain leadership skills, be role models for their peers, meet new friends and make a difference in the community. The sponsors promised that the conversation would be youth-led and topics would be decided based on youth concerns.

“We asked the kids what they wanted for the community and what they wanted to do for the community,” Woodmansee said. “If you let the kids make the decisions, they really do have good ideas.”

Two weeks ago they met at the zoo for pizza and a brainstorming session about what they could do as a community service project before school starts. They came up with the idea to organize a cleanup day at the zoo.

The organizers of Youth Crew have found support from throughout the community. For Wednesday’s work project, Betty Schneider from the Pilot Club brought snacks and water. Pilot Club also has a program to provide bicycle helmets, and she was able to give one to a Youth Crew member who hasn’t worn a helmet before now.

“When people realize it’s for the youth in our community, people are pretty generous,” Woodmansee said. 

Youth Crew members also attended a statewide youth leadership conference via Zoom this summer and they volunteered at the Mental Health Awareness Day at the end of May. In September they plan to participate in Glow 4 Life, a program of the Central Kansas Partnership’s Suicide Prevention task force. There will be a new event, a bike ride in remembrance of Devan Randolph.

Youths who participated in Wednesday’s cleanup were Aaron Deason, Lakin Rowley, Jasmine Figueroa, Jay Creamer, Elle Anne Reed, Shatarah Newton and Damian Palma. Several of the participants talked about how they came to join the group.

Deason said he heard about Youth Crew when he attended a symposium offered by YLINK (Youth Leaders IN Kansas), a statewide group that has goals similar to those of Youth Crew. Rowley came with her grandmother, Betty Schneider from the Pilot Club.

“I heard about it from a poster,” Figueroa said. The idea that she could be involved in the community and also have a voice in the community appealed to her.

“I joined because it gave me a reason to get out of bed, and it was doing something for the community,” Creamer said.

The age-old complaint of “nothing to do” is something that members discussed, Woodmansee said. A coworker searched Explore Great Bend and other websites and provided a long list of things to do, from the community bicycle rides to service groups. But the students are learning that they can also share new ideas and they can be heard. Creamer and others have an idea to reach out to businesses in hopes of seeing a trampoline park in Great Bend in the future, Woodmansee said.

“They have really good ideas,” she said. “We just have to connect them to people that will listen.”