Community Engagement with Youth

In early March, a group of 10 professionals from Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam arrived in Pensacola as part of a U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) project titled “ASEAN: Community Engagement with Youth.”

The purpose of the exchange was to highlight creative ways communities and institutions can work with young people to reduce the amount of youth who engage in criminal activities and violence while turning them to more positive outlets. The visitors spent a weekend and two weekdays in Pensacola meeting with representatives of local organizations that do just that. They also had time to enjoy some cultural fun and experience local hospitality.

One of the group’s first experiences was an official welcome at Pensacola City Hall by City Council Executive Don Kraher. After first highlighting area history and giving an overview of how local government works, Mr. Kraher surprised and delighted the visitors by presenting them with certificates of honorary citizenship to the City of Pensacola.

The ASEAN visitors next spent time at several educational institutions, including some that work directly with at-risk youth. At N.B. Cook Elementary School of the Arts, Assistant Principal Jennifer Collins led the group on a tour of the school while discussing how its arts-centered curriculum inspires students. The IVLP guests visited several classrooms and met with students as well.

The visitors also spent time at the PACE Center for Girls on a visit organized by teacher Ashley Donahoo and Executive Director Laurie Rodgers. They visited several classrooms to learn about the educational program and counseling services provided to the teen girls attending the center. They were also delighted to speak with students for an informal cultural sharing and Q&A session.

At AMI Kid’s Escambia Boys Base, a residential juvenile justice facility for teen boys located on Corry Station, Director of Operations William Freeman spoke to the visitors about the facility’s restorative justice-focused program and how they work with the young men there to help them deal with troubled pasts and to make committed changes towards brighter futures.

The group looked at the benefits of after-school programs for children during time spent at the Pensacola Boys and Girls Club, part of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast. Executive Director Leslie Hunter-Huff shared how the program enriches young lives by providing academic help, recreational and cultural opportunities, and life skills learning in a safe environment.

IVLP guests also met with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida President Paula Shell who spoke not only about the significant benefits of community-based mentoring for at-risk youth but also about how rewarding the experience is for adults who participate as a “Big.”

During a visit to Ballet Pensacola, the IVLP group heard about a creative way that organization inspires youth through exposure to a new art form. Executive Director Frank Giammaria discussed the organization’s Discover Dance program that brings performances to local schools and also shared information about scholarships allowing young people to get involved in dance classes regardless of financial circumstances.

Another way communities can inspire young people is through volunteerism. During a Saturday morning shoreline cleanup with Ocean Hour at Naval Live Oaks, the visitors heard about just that.  Co-President Barbara Mozur shared how the organization partners with school groups, scouting organizations, and others to provide volunteer opportunities for youth to pick up trash from area beaches while learning about responsible environmental stewardship and caring for the community.

The ASEAN group also enjoyed more of the area’s natural beauty during an afternoon dolphin cruise in Pensacola Bay, and they enjoyed a warm display of local hospitality when local members of the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council hosted them for dinners in their homes. Hosts included Ben and Magali Posey, David and Rebecca Ferguson, Allan and Andrea Ford, and Teresa and William Preston.

Two of the visitors from the Philippines also had a special experience when Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council Board Chair Karen Jurkowich graciously fulfilled their request of attending a local church service.

The Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council thanks all who contributed to the success of this project and extends a special thank you to Volunteer Facilitator Susan Senkarik who accompanied the visitors to their local appointments.