When asked if she can name any skill The Granite Youth Alliance has helped her with, in the course of her civic engagement in the Greater Seacoast, high school sophomore Grace Lunny is emphatic: “Public speaking.”
She elaborates. “While I’ve always been a natural public speaker, it’s helped me compose my thoughts. Instead of using a script, I can speak from memory. I’ve learned how to advocate and how to educate people. I used to struggle feeling confident while speaking. I’ve gained confidence with my speech.”
Grace is not only confident about her speaking. As far back as she can remember, she has always wanted to make a difference. Her father, a chair on the school board, was an early example of what civic engagement in the Greater Seacoast could look like. But she didn’t know exactly what she could do until sixth grade, when she joined the Granite Youth Alliance. This program of United Way of the Greater Seacoast empowers youth to become leaders in their community, by teaching skills that help them advocate for their peers to avoid drug and alcohol misuse.
Now she is confident in her mission. She knows she has the tools she needs to create positive change in her region.
EMPOWERING STUDENTS WITH SKILLS AND EXPERIENCES
Located in Eastern Rockingham County, The Granite Youth Alliance has teams from 6th grade through high school. (There is currently one team at the university level.) These teams meet weekly after school. There, advisors work with teams of students on a variety of projects related to addressing substance misuse, helping them gain valuable skills along the way.
As Vicki Hebert, Coordinator of Granite Youth Alliance, explains, getting students involved at the middle school level is a priority. One reason for that? It is easier for middle schoolers to declare themselves substance-free.
Younger students get involved in simple projects, like Sticker Shock, which happens at various times in many communities. This project involves students entering establishments and putting stickers on alcoholic products, reminding anyone purchasing alcohol that it is unlawful to purchase for minors.
As students continue on in the program, the projects become larger, and more exciting, like the annual Granite Youth Film Festival.
Hebert explains: “We might start a team doing a simple project, like a scripted presentation. Then their presentation skills develop. Other teams do comprehensive year-long campaigns. It really depends on the team and how developed they are.”
“High school students do more advanced projects. You get to the point where they are presenting at the town council.”
Such a project, Hebert points out, offers real challenges to the students on that team, who must hone their critical thinking skills, anticipate feedback, and develop counterarguments. They also must learn about the legislative process, like how to obtain a sponsor, and develop an understanding of the process of testifying.
The training, projects, mentoring, and experiences Granite Youth Alliance provides helps students have satisfying extracurricular pursuits in middle and high school. By making civic engagement opportunities in the Greater Seacoast possible, the youth network also supports United Way’s goal of helping young people graduate from high school, and succeed in college or career. The variety of skills and experiences students gain lend themselves to greater academic success, and will bolster their college applications.
Evidence that the Granite Youth Alliance accomplishes that goal is how students use the program to discover what they want to do as adults. Hebert recalls one student who had been involved in the Granite Youth Alliance, and later was accepted to the University of New Hampshire. There, she will be studying health management and policy.
“The program helped open her eyes,” says Hebert.
STUDENTS LOOKING FOR OPPORTUNITIES
The Alliance is open to any student who wants to join. According to Hebert, there are two types of students who may have the most interest in signing up: “There are students who want to lead, engage with advocacy initiatives. Then there are students who may have been impacted by substance use in their home. Those students tend to be drawn as well.”
THE TOBACCO 21 ORDINANCE- AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY
This year, Grace, with her team, made a special proposal: attempting to pass the Tobacco 21 Ordinance in their town of Newmarket. This ordinance would to ban the use, possession or sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vape pens, for individuals younger than 21. (Under state law, the the minimum age for purchases is 18. Towns and cities can be more restrictive.)
Because of Grace’s experience with addressing the issue of tobacco misuse at her school, she was confident it was a serious issue worth tackling:
“These products were used and sold on school grounds. You couldn’t walk into the bathroom without smelling it. It was distracting. They once had to shut down the bathrooms. So many kids were leaving class and not taking advantage of their education.”
Having seen the City of Dover pass the ordinance helped Grace and another girl decide they could successfully spearhead the effort in their own town.
They knew it wouldn’t be easy. They had to organize a meeting with a town council member. As Grace explains, “We weren’t sure what was going to come out of it.” Fortunately, the town council member they met with ended up being excited to work with them. In an example of Granite Youth Alliance creating opportunities for local elected leaders to mentor youth, showing them what positive civic engagement opportunities in the Seacoast can achieve for the health and well-being of their entire community, this town council member helped them with the process of how to get the ordinance passed.
Then came the process of writing a press release. They met with other community members they hoped would get onboard and attend the meeting. They met with other town council members. At the first meeting, they read out the ordinance for the public to hear it. At the next meeting, they heard community feedback, and watched the town council vote on the ordinance which they had championed.
It was thrilling when all their hard work paid off.
After Newmarket passed the ordinance, there was an attempt to get it passed on the state level. For Grace, visiting the Chamber of Commerce, and seeing the whole process work out, was an incredible experience.
The attempt to pass it there proved less successful. As Grace admits, “People aren’t completely educated about this issue. Most of the people on commerce committee are older, they’re not living what we’re living. We see first hand what the effects are on our peers.”
Grace remains determined, and hopeful for the ordinance’s chances at eventually passing in the statehouse. “We’re looking at the generations after us, so kids don’t have to go through what we do.”
Not Too Young To Make A Difference
As Grace explains, she has always wanted to help others. Granite Youth Alliance has exposed her to all the ways she can make a difference. She is inspired by any experience where she gets to see kids from other branches from the Alliance, “when I get to see what they’re doing. Some of the kids have traveled all over the country. I want to present and educate other people.”
“I didn’t know these things were within reach.” She hopes to be a part of Granite Youth Alliance for years to come.
Special thanks to Kennebunk Savings Bank for selecting the Granite Youth Alliance as a Spotlight Fund Award recipient.