PERRYVILLE — An impromptu meeting of the minds at the Outreach building has led to the launch of a Youth Advisory Council, bringing together middle and high school students and law enforcement officials.
Danielle Hemling, director of Perryville Outreach Program, learned about the youth council concept on a visit to the Howard County Police Department.
“They have a lot of youth programs,” Hemling said of the large metropolitan department in the Washington, D.C., suburb. “I was really interested in the youth council and I thought I could import it here on a smaller scale.”
As it turns out, Sgt. Robert Nitz had a similar idea.
“With me stopping over a couple times a week, I wanted to reach out to the youth,” Nitz said.
Hemling said when Nitz came to her with his idea she was already starting the process of forming a council.
“And I said, “Hey I’ve already started. You want to run this?” Hemling recalled.
With the blessing of Perryville Police Chief Allen Miller and Mayor Robert Ashby and a copy of the Howard County curriculum courtesy of Pfc. Will Harris, Nitz began meeting with a group of nine young people. Over six weeks, the council meets with Nitz to discuss issues and concerns.
“They are very honest and forthcoming,” Nitz said. “It’s been a really good group.”
So far he’s learned that the council is concerned about cyber bullying, sexting and vaping and the impact on their community and their schools. He’s noticed that regardless of where each council member lives or attends school they share common concerns.
“They want to be an agent of change,” Nitz said.
During the two-hour sessions the cellphones are put away and conversations are deep.
“We have a (lesson) plan, but if there’s something you need to discuss then let’s talk,” Hemling said of the weekly meetings.
“And we play by Vegas rules,” Nitz said of the confidentiality. “They believe it and they are committed to it.”
Hemling said these members had to apply for the seat so she knew going in that each wanted to be involved.
“This is a great group of go-getters,” she said of the inaugural board. “But to effect change in the community, we need to get the kids who are in trouble, not just the kids who get good grades.”
Not all of the current Youth Advisory Council members are members of the Outreach Program, Hemling noted. However it’s a diverse group, Nitz added.
“There are two with jobs, one wants to be a cop and two are pursuing nominations to the Naval Academy and West Point,” she said.
For Miller, this is about building relationships and partnerships with the young people.
“Most of these kids have grown up here and will probably live here as adults,” the chief said. “We want to show them through the youth panel how they can be productive citizens and that they can protect and serve their community.”
Ashby said the program will develop a new level of respect.
“The more we invest in the youth of the town the better we’ll be,” Ashby said. “I want our kids like the one at the parade who tied the man’s shoe because he couldn’t put the flag down.”
During the Independence Day parade in Arlington, Texas Joshua Brown, 11, was summoned to the aid of a member of the Arlington Police Color Guard. Officer Jerrick Wilson got another guard member to seek Brown’s help for his loose shoelace. Although he admits he was nervous, Brown responded by not only tying the laces of the dress shoe, but also double knotting. Photos of the deed have gone viral.
“There are many, many good kids in this community,” Miller said. “These kids on the panel are volunteers and they are here because they want their voice to be heard.”
It’s about educating and empowering, the chief said.
“These are two-way conversations. We’ll listen to them but we also want them to listen to us,” he said.
Miller attended the first session. Rising Sun Police Chief Francis “Chip” Peterson was on hand for another.
“I’m betting every one of (the council members) will interact differently now when they see a cop,” Hemling said. “The kids in the Outreach already do.”