HUNTINGBURG — Paige Kendall is the typical Southridge High School sophomore. She does well in school, participates in extracurricular activities and hangs out with friends.
Something a bit different is that she is also helping to design a park on the north side of Huntingburg.
“We’re kind of building the park,” Kendall said. “We want to make it completely handicapped-accessible. We want to get a basketball court, because the only basketball courts we have are on the south side.”
Kendall is president of the 20-member Mayor’s Youth Council, a group started by Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner last year.
“It’s a leadership opportunity,” Spinner said. “We are trying to develop leaders. But we’re also trying to get them engaged in their community.”
The group meets with Spinner once a month to discuss ideas pertinent to young people in the community. Council members are also giving suggestions for the new park that will be on land near the developing Hunters Crossing subdivision.
“This is a really good way to help us learn more about our community,” Kendall said. “I have a strong drive for leadership, and I’ve always loved Huntingburg. After we got the Stellar award, I wanted to learn more about that.”
Six of the students make up the council’s executive team: Kendall, Vice President Nicole Eckert, Secretary Maria Steckler, Treasurer Seth Nunamaker, Communications Chairperson Louisa Nino and Programs Chairperson Cameron Buschkoetter. The team meets with Spinner an additional day each month as well.
“My hope is that if we get them so engaged in and informed on what’s going on in the city,” Spinner said, “that once they finish college and decide where they want to live, they will think about the cool things going on in Huntingburg and come back here.”
Along with helping design the park, the council has created a constitution for the council, that includes bylaws, policies and amendments. The document was signed at one of the council’s meetings.
“The city does a very good job with getting us involved,” Kendall said. “They are giving us a lot to handle as students, and I think it’s working out. A lot of the adults like it in our community.”
In all the Stellar Communities activities, Spinner said the one gap he could see was with the youth. “We did not have a lot of engagement from our youth,” he said. “So how do we fix that?”
He got his answer at an Accelerate Indiana Municipalities conference last year, where he heard a talk about creating youth councils where the mayor meets with the council regularly. Spinner is first vice president of AIM’s board of directors and now sits on an advisory council established to guide the youth councils network.
“It was presented as a way to open the dialogue between the mayor and the youth in the community,” Spinner said. “I decided I needed to do that.”
Chelsea Schneider, AIM’s municipal innovations specialist, said the agency has been pushing the idea of forming youth councils throughout the state. Currently, there are 26 communities with youth councils run by mayors and town leaders across the state, she said.
“Our goal is to grow the number of youth councils to increase youth involvement in our communities around the state,” Schneider said, “and provide statewide programming for the youth councils and networking with other youths across the state.”
Last year’s youth council had 12 Southridge High School students. But when more students became interested, Spinner thought, “Why not have more voices on the council?”
Last year the youth council promoted the city’s monthly 5-5-5 run/walk events to high school and middle school students. They encouraged students at both schools to form teams to run together and the winners — the team that had all their members cross the finish line first — received free Dubois County Bombers tickets.
“We had a huge number of youth turn out at all the 5-5-5’s that summer,” Kendall said, “more than in the past.”
Once the exercise events were over, the council conducted a survey to ask students the kinds of things that would encourage them to participate in future walks, like having food after an event, creating a walking club, or walking with a friend. That information was compiled into a presentation the council gave at AIM’s Youth Summit last year. Council members will attend this year’s youth summit, which will be March 3 at Indiana University-Bloomington.
“Indiana is fortunate to have so many dedicated municipal officials who have made the development of their community’s youth a top priority,” said Matt Greller, CEO of AIM. “Thanks to the work of Mayor Spinner and others, we were able to launch the Aim Youth Councils Network to help city and town officials start their own youth councils, and provide them a framework for connecting with other councils around the state.”
Last week, Spinner took Kendall, Eckert and Nunamaker to the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis for AIM’s Legislative Day. The students toured the capitol, met with their local legislators and heard talks from Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick as well as several young professionals who work in government. And on the way home, they talked to Spinner and asked questions about what they saw and heard.
“Denny has been a great role model for me and everybody on the council,” Kendall said. “He’s shown me that I want to go into politics or something where I can help out the community, not just help myself.”
Spinner hopes the students involved on the council will grow up to be adults involved in the community.
“A lot of these young people want to make an impact,” he said. “I’m hopefully showing them that they can have an impact in their hometown now.”
Students wanting to join the council must complete an application and write an essay about what leadership means to them. The council votes on each applicant.