Youth returned to participate in the city’s Youth Advisory Council (YAC) on Monday night for the first time since the onset of COVID-19 restrictions. The meeting largely served as an orientation for the six applicants, most of whom were new to the program.
“I am very excited. I’m also very nervous, because I’ve never heard of something like this before now. And I think it’s really cool that us young people get to make an impact,” said newcomer Skyann Humphries, who is in eighth grade. “I definitely am excited to learn about how the town works a little more.”
YAC was formed in 2004 by City Manager Richard Meyers to give high school and middle school youth access to civic education in a real-world setting. The youth council also serves as a communication link between the Cottage Grove City Council and youth in the community, offering members a seat at city council meetings as a “youth representative.”
Members rotate taking a seat with councilors at these meetings, giving them an opportunity for input during discussions and even a symbolic vote on council decisions.
The group has the capacity for 17 members, so there are still plenty of seats to fill for this year’s group. Though the application process is technically over, Meyers said the group will still be accepting members through the rest of the school year.
Typically, YAC follows the school district schedule, beginning its rotation each September, but with the recent easing of COVID-19-related restrictions, Meyers felt that students could at least take this spring to get acquainted with the program and come in with some experience in the fall.
YAC members have in the past had the chance to experience local government through city tours of infrastructure sites, conducting mock planning commission meetings, role-playing emergency preparedness tabletop exercises with dispatch equipment and witnessing simulated felony traffic stops with police officers.
On top of the civics education, Meyers encourages youth to join to acquire skills which come out of group discussions and projects.
“Interacting with others, I mean, that’s a big piece of it. And building confidence and communication skills are huge,” he said.
At their group meetings, members may not always agree on the direction of projects and part of the experience is to negotiate those situations.
“Definitely working on those kinds of things is very exciting,” said Humphries, who said she was looking forward to developing her speaking skills.
YAC member and high school junior Emma McDonald is returning for her third year with the program.
“I really enjoyed sitting at the council meetings,” she said of her past YAC experience. “It was really interesting. I really liked being able to voice an opinion on what’s happening in the city and I really liked hearing everybody in the city — just the citizens of Cottage Grove voice what they actually care about so passionately, and then bringing it up and trying to enact change. It made me feel like I was part of something important.”
The group is more than just academic — it has a history of effective impact as well. Besides the acquisition of these skills and knowledge, the group engages in community events. In past years, it has occasionally hosted free movie nights at various venues, arranged an annual Battle of the Bands and organized youth fairs which held events, games and opportunities for young people to sign up for summer programs.
Beyond local projects, YAC has also focused on broader legislative missions. Once per year, YAC students are taken to Salem to visit the state legislature and Cottage Grove’s representatives. Support for the students there is strong and the group’s relationship with state legislators has grown over the years.
More than a decade ago, YAC hosted a joint House-Senate committee meeting in the Cottage Grove City Hall to address methamphetamine use and drug addiction.
Then-Governor Ted Kulongoski and other legislators from around the state attended and listened to presentations by state police and rehabilitation service providers. During the session, one of the YAC members testified, recounting her experience living in a home with someone addicted to methamphetamines.
Future YAC iterations continued the theme of raising drug awareness. In 2017, they held an assembly at the middle school to talk about tobacco use, sharing the assembly with the American Cancer Society’s fundraising event Relay for Life. There, YAC came up with the idea to distribute differently colored bracelets to audience members, illustrating the percentages of Americans affected by tobacco-related illnesses or death.
Perhaps the group’s crowning achievement, though, began in 2016 when a youth representative attending a city council meeting listened to a parent give testimony about her son’s use of nitrous oxide and how readily the drug was available in the community.
Nitrous oxide, sometimes called “laughing gas,” is a sedative agent that is also used as an aerosol spray propellant, commonly found in whipped cream dispensers. Recreationally, it is inhaled to cause a euphoric dizziness. In the testimony, the parent described how close her son came to death by driving under the drug’s influence.
Because the sale and distribution of nitrous oxide fell under state and federal law, the Cottage Grove City Council said it was unable to act in response to the testimonial. Sensing an opportunity, the attending YAC member reported this back to the group, which prompted members to discuss, research and investigate the drug’s prevalence, impacts on people’s lives and how other states dealt with the issue.
A few weeks later, during the group’s legislative field trip to Salem, YAC discussed the problem with Rep. Cedric Hayden, who works as a dentist and administers nitrous oxide. The legislator was surprised to hear how easily obtainable the drug was among youths.
After some months, Rep. Hayden helped YAC draft a concept and soon a bill was created which sought to limit the sale of canisters containing nitrous oxide to people 21 and over. YAC members traveled to the Oregon Legislative Assembly to testify to the House Committee on Health Care and push for the bill’s introduction to the Senate floor.
After some negotiating on the age restriction, it ultimately passed.
HB 3030 restricted the sale of nitrous oxide canisters to individuals aged 18 or older, making it a Class A violation for first-time offenders. This version of the bill passed both Senate and House without a single “No” vote and was signed into law in June 2017, eventually being carried into effect Jan. 1 of the next year.
With this year’s short session already finished in the state legislature, YAC members will have to wait until next year before any major projects like that get off the ground, but there is still no shortage of issues the group may choose to work on in the meantime. At the orientation on Monday, youth homelessness and mental health were brought up.
Veteran member McDonald encouraged other youth the join as plenty of seats are still open.
“You think that it might be scary because it seems so professional, but it’s not (scary),” she said. “I like to have a voice in what’s going on in the world around me. And I like having the opportunity to do that in such a like professional setting.”