Whitesburg KY

Youth want say on recreation center

Several young people are volunteering to help the Letcher Fiscal Court make a proposed new recreation center attractive to their peers.

About a dozen members of the Youth Leadership Team, led by Tommy Anderson and Willa Johnson, appeared at the July meeting of the Letcher Fiscal Court Monday to thank the court for obtaining the old A&P property in Whitesburg and to express their desire to be involved in the planning of the center.

Anderson told the court the group had come to express its appreciation for the court’s efforts to obtain the center and to establish a youth component to the planning. Anderson said that in the past a lot of young people have felt overlooked and left out from traditional activities at schools and the youth center will create more opportunities to participate. He said it is a great responsibility to be in on the planning stage of a center which will benefit the entire county but the Youth Leadership Team is anxious to work with the court.

Willa Johnson presented the court with packets containing the results of conversations held with various groups of young people and suggestions on how they can become more involved. Johnson told the court that a group of young people met July 18 in the Harry Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg and filled out questionnaires about the center.

In the packet, the Youth Leadership Team (YLT) wrote that one of the biggest obstacles facing young people in Letcher County is the lack of recreational activities and safe and drug free places to gather. Members wrote that this resulting boredom leads to a lack of community pride and possible drug abuse and that with the endemic poverty of the region, many students aren’t able to participate in extracurricular activities at their schools. The young people said they believe they are capable of creating and organizing and would like an opportunity to work side by side with the court and other adults in the county to help make the center all it can be.

The questionnaire presented at the July 18 gathering contained a number of answers and suggestions. Reasons for participation include having a sense of ownership, giving young people reasons to change negative behaviors, creating a feeling of belonging, and a reminder that the young people of the county will someday be the county’s leaders.

The respondents pointed to a number of things currently missing in Letcher County that can be addressed when planning for the center. The need for a place to entertain and provide opportunities for people to socialize is important as well as a place for a diverse group of young people, including some who feel like outcasts in school environments but have much to offer in other ways. A venue for music, classes, movies, physical activity, and workshops that teach arts and crafting activities were among suggestions.

Suggestions for ways of increasing youth involvement were numerous and creative. Several listed simply having a “cool” place, where kids will actually want to go as an important factor, as well as advertising facility events on radio and in newspapers. Concerts and other events were also listed. Potential adult partners included teachers, elected officials, business and community leaders, professionals, and others with an interest in providing a safe and productive environment for young people.

The packet also included a letter of support from Professor Katie Richards-Schuster of the University of Michigan’s Michigan Youth and Community Program. Professor Richards- Schuster said the Michigan Youth and Community Program has already been working in Letcher County through Appalshop’s award winning Appalachian Media Initiative, and she urged the court to involve local youth in the planning process. Richards-Schuster said research shows that youth involvement in the planning process was a critical factor in the success of youth centers.

Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the group members he was pleased with their desire to participate and was impressed with the work they had accomplished so far. Ward said the court had held one planning meeting and he had been disappointed that no young people had attended, but he welcomed the YLT and other young people in the county who want to help with the planning.

District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming urged Johnson to make sure the YLT included young people from throughout the county and she told him that while most areas in the county are represented, she and other members are still working to get the word out and to invite young people to participate.

Ward pointed to a previous successful collaboration between county government and young people in planning the Whitesburg Skate Park, which was a cooperative effort between the City of Whitesburg and the Letcher County Department of Parks and Recreation. Ward said the court had invited skaters from all over the county to meet with them and help design a park that would fit their needs. Ward said the old A&P building will be torn down instead of attempting what could be a costly renovation, and that a new structure will be built from the ground up.

“You will definitely have input,” said Ward.

The court voted unanimously to allow Ward to finalize the purchase of the property for $350,000. Ward said the Kentucky Association of Counties had approved the court’s request for a loan package and that KACO had also said it would allow the court to make loans as needed in order to keep interest low. Ward said the initial loan is for $500,000, which should get the demolition completed and pay for initial planning and architect costs. The interest rate from KACO is 3.5 percent.

District Two Magistrate Archie Banks told the group the court intends to look at centers in other cities to see what has worked and what isn’t working, and that they were welcome to come along. Banks later said that youth involvement is the critical factor in making the center a success. He said he had talked about the center with his 10-year-old niece and was amazed at the number of ideas she had presented to him. Magistrate Fleming added that it is important that the center be done in a manner that will not only benefit the county, but will work out for everyone.

“We’re charged with spending the county’s money wisely,” said Fleming. “We will have to be careful about what we do. We need to get the most bang for our buck. Some counties have put things in play that won’t ever work, so we need to be real careful.”

Fleming also said he believes an emphasis on arts is very important. Banks agreed and said that a lot more students in high schools don’t play sports than those who do, and that many would be interested in other activities like arts projects. Willa Johnson told the court the experience of working with them will help young people to develop good leadership skills.

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