Secaucus teens take part in three-year project

Statewide program hopes to develop the next generation of leaders

Teens conduct study on Secaucus parks. Standing and presenting is Emily Torres and Alyssa Delos Santos
Teens conduct study on Secaucus parks. Standing and presenting is Emily Torres and Alyssa Delos Santos

More than 150 teens from across New Jersey learned and developed the skills they need to become the next leaders in their communities at New Jersey Health Initiatives’ (NJHI) Next Generation Community Leaders Retreat held at Rutgers University’s Camden campus earlier this month.

Secaucus youngsters joined kids from around the state to take part in a program run by The Partners in Prevention (formerly NCADD of Hudson County).

This program is one of only 10 recipients in New Jersey to receive a Next Generation Community Leaders grant. This funding was awarded through New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grant making program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Ryan Palmer, of the adult leaders, said the program recruited high school kids from around Secaucus. Kids started this year with a retreat that includes a workshop where the students made a presentation of their project. The retreat also allowed them to talk with students from other communities from around the state, getting ideas and feedback from others.

“The focus is on creating space for their activities, and ideas being generated from the kids, and not being told by an adult,” Palmer said.

“They look at their own community and see what it needs, but at the retreat they get a chance to see a statewide perspective, a lens on how things work on a local level around the state,” Jamie Sierfeld, project director said. “The students get to see this is a much larger movement.”

According to organizers, young people are crucial community stakeholders that are often overlooked, yet have the potential to bring new and different perspectives about their community to the table. In many communities, the youth are more likely to be seen as a problem to be managed rather than a resource. This perception is especially true during the summer months.

This is a three-year project, in which a total of 30 youngsters from Secaucus, ages 14-21, received guidance from trained community-based coaches to better understand topics around population health, develop leadership skills, and implement self-designed projects to make their communities healthier.

By the end of this project, the youth participants are supposed to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to work with municipal governments, cross-sector coalitions focused on health, school boards, and other organizations to build healthier and more vibrant communities.

The youths will also participate in a statewide alumni network to stay connected to their peers as they continue on their leadership paths and move into the next phases of their lives.

To help advance the project, the kids and coaches partnered with the town of Secaucus and the Secaucus Environmental Department, as well as other town departments, including the schools.

The kids will begin the next phase of the project over the summer, which includes issues involving safety in and around the parks as well as litter.

Last summer, the group of students worked to raise awareness about environmental health by partnering with the Secaucus Environmental Department’s Green Business Initiative, the school district and local businesses to create a composting system that would be sustainable beyond summer 2018.

This summer, a new youth team is working toward environmental change by auditing community parks and sharing recommendations with Town Council members about necessary changes that can improve residents’ access to parks and promote increased physical activity by park visitors.

This year’s  project focuses on litter and safety

This year’s project started back in January. The students wanted to deal with the issue of litter and trash around the community.

“They wanted to come up with ways to address it,” Palmer said.

The students did an audit on various resources, such as trash receptacles in the parks, what kind, where they were located, and were they in places where they could be used.

The audit also looked at other issues such as recreation equipment, its condition and whether it was safe to use. The students also looked at walkability around the parks, the state of the sidewalks, crosswalks, and other safety issues.

“They hope to make recommendations that would make it so that people would use the parks,” Palmer said.

The students will make a public presentation at one of the movie nights during the summer.

“By being one of just 10 communities participating in this program, our new group understands how important this project is, and the lasting effects of it,” said Alyssa Jaipersaud, one of the youth leaders. “I am extremely excited that I can share my experience with them, so we can work together to create sustainable changes in our hometown. This group is hardworking and dedicated to the future of Secaucus and our program, which is going to make for a great year.”

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