Youth Leadership Program meets with mayors, justice system officials
Photo Gallery | Youth leadership students meet with local officials
PITTSFIELD — It wasn't a high-profile business executive, esteemed statesman or multimillion dollar grant that got two mayors, two court officials, a police chief and a veteran attorney into the same room on Tuesday afternoon, but a group of Berkshire County high school juniors.
The 29 students are members of the Youth Leadership Program, a youth development initiative now in its sixth year under the umbrella of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
The attorney, C. Jeffrey Cook Esq., is a partner in the city's firm Cohen Kinne Valicenti & Cook, which sponsors the program. He said spending the afternoon listening to younger people was well worth his time.
Cook, who has grandchildren in the Pittsfield Public Schools, says it's a "healthy impulse" for young adults to want to leave Berkshire County to get more educational and career experience, but after they're seasoned in the world, he'd like to see that talent return to the region to help it grow.
"They're more likely to do so if they had a positive feeling of the potential in the area," said Cook.
Which is why he said it's important for adults in the community to invest time in listening to its younger constituents and responding to their needs.
"If we do not stop the chronic loss of population here, we're going to be in big trouble; so it's in everybody's critical interest to get involved," Cook said.
Sharing those thoughts and values, Berkshire Juvenile Court Judge Joan M. McMenemy, Chief Juvenile Probation Officer William Gale, Pittsfield Mayor Linda M. Tyer, North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, and Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn also took part in Tuesday's event.
They met with the Youth Leadership members in City Council chambers at City Hall to share their experiences working in and advocating for change in the Berkshires. They also prompted students to talk about their experiences and asked the teens to express their questions, concerns and hopes for the community.
Youth Leadership members have been pondering their positions during the group's meetings — on the first Tuesday of every month — when they visit different businesses or organizations and hear about career, leadership and other opportunities in that field.
Some of the recommendations students made on Tuesday included offering more entertainment and recreational opportunities; improving the infrastructure of school buildings and neighborhoods, and creating more opportunities for collaboration to build a positive, prideful countywide culture.
Jack Callahan, of Taconic High School, said he felt that the return and reinvestment of a major employer, like General Electric, could help address all of the county's needs, from improved entertainment and recreational opportunities to better schools and infrastructure.
"Once we get jobs back from a major employer, everything else will be taken care of," he said.
Chief Wynn told students that changes — from cleaner city blocks to new restaurants and athletic facilities — can't always come from one source, whether the government or a larger employer.
"Community is about community. It's everybody's job to get involved," he said. "Change what you can change."
Chief Probation Officer Gale implored students to take advantage now of the opportunities in their backyards, from internships to workshops to programs like Youth Leadership.
Hoosac Valley High School junior Crystal Wojcik said she's learning firsthand how doing so can help someone, even at her age, better their lives and opportunities.
For three years she volunteered at Berkshire Medical Center and is now employed there as a dietary aide. With her interest in psychology, she's hoping that having her foot in the door might lead to an internship opportunity with the hospital's department of psychiatry and behavioral health.
"I have an idea of what I want to do, but I don't know what goes on in that department. I'm hoping I can get the opportunity to learn how," she said.