Upper Valley represented on new statewide youth council

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2022 7:37 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Grace Bourn’s family fostered a baby for a year before the baby was returned to his birth father.

That experience is among those Grace, an 11-year-old Fairlee resident, plans to draw on as a member of the Vermont State Youth Council, which met for the first time in mid-December at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier.

“I wanted to get on the council because I wanted to be the change that people wanted to see in the community and to help people that needed help,” Grace, who is in 5th grade at Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee, said in a phone interview.

In particular, she would like to see more support in school for children in the foster care system, as well as sound barriers for schools such as hers that sit near interstates.

The council, which was created through Act 109 enacted in May, is a group of 28 of the state’s young people. It will meet at least monthly, meet annually with the governor and make yearly reports to the House and Senate Committees on Government Operations.

The application process to join the council opened in September and more than 200 young people submitted applications, according to a news release from the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Afterschool. The department is providing support to the council in scheduling, logistics and technology, while Vermont Afterschool, which has long advocated for the formation of the council, is helping facilitate.

The 28 council members were selected by the Youth Services Advisory Council, a group that includes representatives from government agencies and other organizations that support young people around the state, Nicole Miller, executive director of Vermont Afterschool, said. The young people selected include at least one from each of Vermont’s 14 counties. They range in age from 11 to 18.

“We really tried to make sure we had a really good spread of age, experiences (and) backgrounds to make the council as reflective of Vermont as possible,” Miller said. They wanted to ensure that “multiple perspectives and opinions were going to be in the room.”

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Miller said it’s important to have young people’s input into policies that will affect them.

“Young people want and need what we all want and need,” Miller said, noting that they mentioned issues such as school culture, mental health, the environment and diversity in their applications.

“I’m eager to see what young people’s thoughts and opinions are about how we address those issues,” she said.

Also eager to see what the council will come up with is state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, who was one of the lead sponsors of the bill, H.293, which created the council. The idea came from a group of young people working with Vermont Afterschool. It took five years for the idea to become law, which was partly due to the state having other priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mrowicki said.

Youth have already contributed to legislative initiatives such as the statewide plastic bag ban and the prohibition of idling school buses, he said.

“Good ideas come from anywhere,” he said. It would “behoove us to listen.”

Grace is one of five of the new council’s members who live in the Upper Valley. The others include: Jaxon DalPra, of Hartland; Josh Stearns, of Norwich; Molly Armbrust, of West Hartford; and Amanda Riley, of Windsor.

Stearns, a 16-year-old junior at Hanover High School, said he wanted to join the council to share his thoughts with those in power.

“I think a lot of the time politicians or just people who make decisions for us always say they want to be connected to youth and I always have wanted to have my voice heard,” he said. “I think a lot of my peers feel similar. (It’s) hard to have opportunities to have your voice heard.”

Stearns said he is concerned about the struggles many young people are having with their mental health. In particular, he is concerned about access to mental health care in the state’s more rural areas. He said he doesn’t have a solution in mind, but he plans to discuss this more with other members of the council and with his peers at school.

Overall, he said he hopes the council helps give young people a voice in the legislative process.

“Despite not being able to vote, we are still important,” he said.

Armbrust, a 16-year-old high school junior, is homeschooled but takes some classes at Hartford High School. She said she was motivated to join the council to continue work she has already started relating to diversity, equity and inclusion by serving on a committee at Hartford High and as a liaison to the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion. Her biggest focus is racial equity, she said.

The council’s first meeting was focused on members getting to know each other, but Armbrust said some of the details of how exactly the council will operate are still unclear.

“(I) came in curious and I’m leaving curious,” she said of the first meeting. “...I hope that (the council) can be a force for good.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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