The New Student Representatives on Leland’s Parks & Rec
It’s an age-old question: how does anyone manage to infiltrate and comprehend the mind of a teenager?
For the Town of Leland, and more specifically the Parks and Recreation Department, the answer is relatively simple and has been for years. Niel Brooks, the department’s operation services coordinator since 2008, claims that if one wants to reach another generation, one must recruit members of it. Enter Samantha Smith and Divia Bash, two ninth-grade students serving on the town’s board as the eyes and ears of the high school crowd.
“We’re not teens ourselves – obviously – so it’s good that we bring them on periodically to keep our ideas fresh,” he says. “You get that perspective, which demographically we’ve had a hard time with because it’s not something we’re directly connected to on a daily basis.”
While the two-year student representative position is in no way new to Leland’s inner workings, this is the first time that there are two students rather than one, both of whom attend monthly meetings as equal partners. As active participants in many of the extracurricular activities offered by North Brunswick High School and the community, Bash and Smith have a particular appreciation for this development in normal procedure.
“If we get caught up in after-school sports or something, it’s nice to know we can just text each other and keep track of who can do what,” says Smith. “We talk during meetings about what’s going on outside of them, and we ask others for help when we need to.”
That isn’t to say that the girls didn’t know how to work together before being sworn into the town board last February; they first met on the soccer field and during school functions since the term began in August. At the time, they had no idea that they would apply and be chosen for the same position with the town’s parks and recreations board.
“When we found out that we both applied I actually said ‘wouldn’t it be funny if we made the board at the same time?’” Smith jokes. “Guess I was right!”
The process by which student representatives are chosen is tried and true, but as Amy Ryan, Leland Parks and Recreations Department’s Recreation Supervisor, says, there are certain aspects of the applications that tend to weigh more heavily than others.
In a sea of prospective youths, Ryan says that the ones that stand out can articulate responses on extracurricular activities, volunteer experiences, and why they feel qualified to serve in such a capacity. Perhaps most important of all, she guesses, would be the replies the students give to one question in particular: what do you want to accomplish?
“I think my favorite question, and one that I really pay attention to, is one of the essays; what area of parks and recreation would you like to see addressed?” Ryan says. “What the student says gives us a good idea of that person’s knowledge as well as where general youth interest lies.”
Over the next two years, these particular students will be able to work toward the goals they outlined in their original essays as they sit in on board meetings and assist the department in event planning and development. For both Bash and Smith, this means hopefully bringing together more recreational team sports opportunities for youth in their age group.
“There aren’t many options for teens beyond what the high school offers for sports in the community,” Smith says. “And those are great, but not everyone has the opportunity to play. I sometimes go to Wilmington for rec sports, but a lot of kids can’t do that, either; the first step to change that is to become part of the board and bounce ideas off of others.”
In addition to local sports, the students have a mutual desire to see the programs of the cultural arts center flourish; in particular, the girls have been involved with the preliminary stages of planning a teen-focused egg hunt to compliment one that the town holds each Easter for younger ages, and Bash has taken a special interest in less common forms of entertainment like a local magic show.
“Because I have access to a variety of people, it’s easy and helpful to use that input in this field,” Bash says.
But whether they are sitting in on a board meeting and reviewing agenda items or pitching their thoughts to other members of the department, the student representatives agree that through the position they’re likely to gain some valuable insight for life after high school: not the least of which would be the ability to step out of one’s comfort zone and learn from those who have been working in various offices for some time, according to Bash.
And while Ryan says that one of her favorite aspects of the initiative is to watch the students grow and become more confident in their roles, Brooks says that he most appreciates the access to fresh minds and ideas, that addresses the specific grit of the matter that so often goes without being voiced.
“It’s true: Millennials are hard to reach,” he says. “But if you don’t make the effort and take advantage of their honesty, you’re doing a disservice to your community.”