Youth council shares Fort Wayne’s success

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The Fort Wayne Youth Engagement Council and advisers are: (front, from left) Emily Lahey, Jazmyn Hernandez, Hannah Benson, Alicia Speer, Joe Straley, Julia Andorfer, Emma Bailey, Lilli Hagadorn, (standing, from left) Doreen Benavente-Sickafoose, Karen Richards, Brandon Blumenherst, Antonio Menson, Carter Davis, Sana Ghazali, Kaleb McCague, Grace McGuire, Ryan Haffner, Deborah Choe, Justin Freeman, Adrianna McNab, Joshua Wolfe, Peyton Godfrey, Will Pape and Ivy McLimans.

Fort Wayne’s Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council shared its success story at a statewide council of similar groups.

Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke also addressed the Accelerate Indiana Municipalities summit Feb. 24 at Launch Fishers, in Fishers, Ind. Karen L. Richards, the Fort Wayne unit’s adult coordinator, said the gathering included breakout sessions at which students discussed ideas with the goal of forming a statewide network. Approximately 25 to 30 councils were expected to participate.

Richard is the mayor’s community liaison for special programs. She oversees a council that selects 22 students each year. This school year’s council represents 11 schools.

Selections reflect diversity, Richards said. Candidates must apply for the council. The screening process involves interviews. “We get the cream of the crop,” Richards said. This school year, 10 students applied to return for a second year on the council.

Doreen Benavente-Sickafoose is in her third year as volunteer coordinator to the group. “They are fabulous kids. They are all so smart and they have great ideas and they just surprise us all the time,” she said. “I don’t remember being like that when I was their age.”

Sonya Snellenberger, project manager at Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, visits the council’s Tuesday afternoon meetings at Citizens Square.

“She comes in almost every week and teaches them something, and part of that is how to talk with each other, how to interview,” Benavente-Sickafoose said.

Brandon Blumenherst, a Homestead High School senior, is on the council for a second year, and is this year’s president. “Being president of this council holds a special meaning because you are elected by your peers, who are already carefully selected by the interviewing process in this council, which is extremely selective,” he said.

“We all come from extremely different backgrounds and family lives and ethnicities, cultures and religions. In these divisive times we’re going through it’s really important that we stay unified as a group of younger individuals who are going to be the leaders of our country.

“This group really embodies that message of cooperating with each other, collaborating, making sure that everyone feels included and everyone’s ideas matter.”

Emily Lahey, a Concordia High School senior, serves as council vice president. “I’ve gotten to meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she said. The group becomes very close, said Lahey, who lives in southwest Fort Wayne.

North Side High School senior Jazmyn Hernandez serves on the council’s advisory board. “This council has helped me be a real member of the community, and not just live in the community,” she said.

For the third year, the Youth Council will work with the Dragon Boat Races as part of Riverpalooza on Saturday, June 24.

Benavente-Sickafoose and Richards traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to see visit the company that takes the dragon boats to fundraisers across the country, and then returned to Fort Wayne to seek sponsorships. “That first year the community really loved it and it just took off,” the volunteer coordinator said.

Dragon boat race team registration opens March 1. For more information on sponsoring or participating, visit riverfrontfw.org.