Young residents take active role in their neighborhood's future with West Willow's new Youth Council

From cleaning up litter to installing a splash pad at West Willow Park, the members of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association (NWWNA)'s newly formed youth council have a lot of ideas to improve their community.


The West Willow Youth Council launched in June in an effort to increase civic engagement among kids who live in Ypsi Township's West Willow neighborhood. It's currently comprised of nine kids ranging in age from 5 to 18.


Jo Ann McCollum is the president of the NWWNA, which does a variety of neighborhood organizing and event planning work. She was inspired to find a new way for young residents to engage with their community when she noticed that some NWWNA events aren't well attended by young neighborhood residents.


McCollum was concerned that there wasn't a way for the NWWNA to hear what kids want. Many neighborhood kids don't use Facebook or Nextdoor, and those who did attend events didn't seem inclined to share their desires for the neighborhood in that setting.


"I felt like if we had something that was specifically for the youth to give us feedback, maybe they would be more willing to do that," McCollum says.


McCollum tried to launch a youth council once before in 2014, but it didn't get off the ground. This spring she connected with Ypsi resident Daquann Harrison, who shared McCollum's desire to establish a youth council in eastern Washtenaw County, and Ashley Kryscynski of Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD). They worked together to build a coalition of supporting community organizations, including Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, WISD, Washtenaw County Health Department, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, and Ypsilanti Township.


In mid-June, the NWWNA hosted a kickoff event designed to recruit young neighborhood residents for the West Willow Youth Council. Residents of all ages were welcome to attend because McCollum believes engaging the entire family unit is necessary in sustaining the youth council. A dozen kids were signed up as a result of the kickoff event, but a couple of them have since stopped participating.


At the end of July the youth council had its first meeting, where the kids were able to share what they like and dislike about their neighborhood. McCollum was surprised that the kids share some concerns with adult residents, like litter and loud, fast vehicles.


Youth council member Vyonca Lewis, 14, has lived in West Willow for eight years. Her mother, Stephanie, signed her up for the youth council when she attended the kickoff event. Vyonca was interested in joining the youth council because she wants to help come up with ideas for events. She's interested in planning events, like a cookout or a baseball game, to provide more opportunities for neighbors to interact with one another.


Vyonca hopes the West Willow Youth Council can help make the neighborhood better and get more youth involved. She thinks the youth council has the potential to bring positive change to the neighborhood.


"Anything is possible and you can do anything that you wish you could do," Vyonca says.


Zethnee and Loui Williams have lived in West Willow for five years. They learned about the West Willow Youth Council through their involvement in Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation's Summer Playground Program, so they attended the group's first meeting a few weeks ago.


"I thought it would be cool for me to decide for my first time what I would like to have where I live," says Zethnee, 11.


McCollum says many of the kids echoed Zethnee's sentiments, noting that they don't often have the chance to share their vision for the neighborhood. Zethnee and Loui, 9, have vision to spare. The sisters want West Willow's Community Resource Center, 2057 Tyler Rd. in Ypsi Township, to offer recreational activities or classes like ballet, gymnastics, and cheer. They also want to add more amenities to West Willow Park, including a splash pad.


"Kids (could) get their energy out and then go back to their homes because it’s so close," Loui says. "They don’t have to drive and it could be free."


Zethnee wants her neighborhood to offer summer activities for kids so they’re not bored and sitting inside all day. She's interested in organizing a talent show or birthday parties for kids in the neighborhood. She also wants to plan occasional excursions for neighborhood kids to visit an amusement or water park.


Zethnee says she enjoys being a part of the West Willow Youth Council because she likes brainstorming ideas. She hopes the group will eventually meet on a weekly basis.


McCollum plans to start with a few events and then see where the council evolves from there. Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley is helping to plan some of those events, including a volunteering day, and it wants to enlist some of its young professionals to mentor the kids on the youth council.


McCollum ultimately hopes the West Willow Youth Council can help improve quality of life for kids in the neighborhood. She wants the kids to feel safer and more empowered through their involvement.


"I think that the big-picture goal is that we want to help the youth become more a part of the community," McCollum says.


She thinks it's possible that some of the kids might want to sit on the NWWNA board when they get older. She says their involvement in the youth council will familiarize them with planning events and working with various organizations.


The West Willow Youth Council is still accepting young residents who are elementary school age to high school age. Those who are interested in joining can email McCollum at joannmccllm@aol.com to learn how they can get involved.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


Photos by Doug Coombe.