When Sterling Heights opened its new community center last year, young resident Faith Simon saw an opportunity. The 17-year-old student is pushing for the teen hang-out zone in the new complex to specifically address, and improve, mental health issues for young people in her community.
Simon, who plans to study communication sciences and disorders to become a speech therapist after she graduates from the International Academy East High School, says the idea for a safe space at the community center
came from observing other cities.
“The plan is to have a specific spot for troubled teens in the recreational center where they can just hangout, study, get some food, or talk with a friend,” she says. “Another idea related to this is to have events held in the safe space concerning mental health.”
The issue is alarmingly real for Simon and her peers. After the impact of COVID-19 throughout 2020, statistics show that 17%
of U.S. youth aged between 6 and 17 years old experience a mental health disorder. Half
of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and in 2018 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide is the second-leading
cause of death among people aged 10 and 34 across the nation.
Promoting mental health is one of the many reasons Simon, and her fellow youth, are getting civically active. Simon is a member of Sterling Heights' youth advisory board, where she represents the 20%
of the city's population under 18 years of age, to voice her concerns and ideas to city leadership. Meeting twice a month, the youth board draws residents between the ages of 14 to 18 together to tackle issues such as sustainability, diversity and inclusion, mental health, and local government awareness.
Faith Simon is one of the members of Sterling Heights' Youth Advisory Board.
For 15-year-old Maxymilian Stefanski, being part of the city’s youth advisory board is a way for him to have a say on ways to create a better environment for his peers. Also an International Academy East student, Stefanski is part of the board’s sustainability committee and is working on creating new transportation options around Sterling Heights, including electric scooters and bike stations.
Maxymilian Stefanski joined his local youth advisory board to help promote a sustainable environment.
“I always wanted to make a change, even if it was small,” Stefanski says. “I believe that if we accomplish the goals we have created, we will feel satisfied as a group but we will make an impact on the community by creating a better space for living.”
Stefanski says young residents have a different perspective than their adult neighbors, and that a balance is needed in any city moving forward.
“Adults have had many more experiences in life than youth have,” he says. “These experiences are good and bad, and shape the mindset of those adults. I believe that a mix of fresh ideas from young people and ideas of experienced people will bring great results.”
COVID-19 has delayed progress for the young cohort, but Simon says they hope to pass on the torch to others.
“My hope is that this group will continue to work towards this goal after I graduate and that young people will become inspired and encouraged,” she says. “I hope this group removes the stigma of 'being too young' to make a difference and shows people that anyone can help their community progress with hard work and collaboration.”
Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor says the youth advisory board is an important part of being an inclusive community, and meets a need for young residents.
"Youth today are more engaged than ever with social issues, and social media often provides them a voice," Taylor says. "But it’s just as important that they have an opportunity to take action and be a part of making change, especially at the local level. The youth advisory board gives them both the voice and the ability to take action. We’ve already seen the impact youth can have on our community, and we are thrilled to continue to support them in their initiatives."
City leaders hope that as well as representing a community cohort, the youth advisory board provides hands-on experience working with public officials and civic engagement opportunities for the teens involved. Simon says having youth involved in the decision-making in the city helped her get to know her city better and the experience prepares the youth for the “real world”.
“Working with the board has been really eye-opening for me as I realized just how much change can be made in the city,” she says. “I have seen more behind the scenes work that goes on in order for the city to function and has made me even more appreciative for the great city I live in.”
Stefanski plans to study business law after graduating and hopes to become a lawyer, something he sees this experience helping with.
“I believe that my voice has been heard and that city officials have helped me grow as a person and helped me create better ideas that we can incorporate into the city,” he says.