Members of the Dublin Youth Council at the ribbon cutting for the city's water park in 2019.
Youth in Dublin have a chance to learn about city government, participate in the court system and gain valuable job experience – all before they’re 18.
In 2018, the city of Dublin was planning to build a city pool. But the young people of this middle Georgia community had another idea: construct a water park.
They voiced their opinions through the Dublin Youth Council, which is comprised of a group of high schoolers and is set up to mimic the positions and functions of their adult counterparts on the Dublin City Council. Youth Council members surveyed their peers, researched the specifications and costs, and presented the case to build a water park instead of a pool.
In 2019, the Southern Pines Water Park opened in Dublin.
“They changed the discussion,” says Dublin City Council member Bennie Jones, who also sits on the Georgia Municipal Association’s (GMA) Children and Youth Advisory Council. “The water park is now an asset to the community – it generates revenue and provides summer jobs for our young people. It was win-win.”
The Dublin Youth Council is one example of how the city is trying to not only engage its younger citizens, but also help them gain confidence, knowledge, leadership and networking skills along the way. The city’s Teen Court and Summer Youth Program are two other examples.
Mayor Best and the Dublin City Council with the city's Youth Council.
The Youth Council, started in 2016, was created to build a bridge between youth and the adults in government.
“This gives them a front row seat to government,” says Kesla Holder, Dublin’s youth programs director. “Teens deserve to have a voice in city decisions and they deserve to not only have a seat at the table, but they deserve to have their own table to communicate amongst themselves.”
Students in grades 10-12 are eligible to participate and can apply for positions such as mayor, city clerk, city attorney and council members representing districts in Dublin and Laurens County. They can serve more than one term, but they must re-apply each year.
Members attend city council meetings, volunteer at city events, and take on community service projects. They also attend GMA conferences and the National League of Cities, where they participate in workshops and have their own sessions.
“The Youth Council gives ideas we didn’t think of, because they might approach a problem in a different way,” says Jones. “These are great minds you are molding. Some come back and serve in the government and they already have the skills.”
Volunteers on Teen Court also get a learning experience: how the judicial system works. Established in 1999, Teen Court allows first time juvenile offenders to literally be tried by a jury of their peers in a courtroom of their peers. Every position in Teen Court from the bailiff to the district attorney to the defense attorney is held by young people ages 11-18. The only adult is the judge.
In order for a case to be heard in Teen Court, the offense must be a misdemeanor and the offender must plead guilty. Sentencing options are up to the jury - made up of previous offenders and volunteers – but at a minimum, offenders must complete community service, pay a court fee and agree to serve on a future jury. Other requirements such as attending a driving class, watching an instructional video, and writing an essay may also be required, depending on the crime.
By volunteering on Teen Court, young people gain skills in public speaking, research and critical thinking, as well as confidence. Offenders benefit by getting a second chance; if they fulfill the requirements, their records are expunged. It also gives them the opportunity to give back to the community and learn accountability. For the city, it helps reduce crime, reduces recidivism and reduces costs and the caseload of the juvenile justice system.
Dublin Youth Council members held Voter Registration Drives at their respective high schools for eligible students.
“The Youth Council and Teen Court provide positive role models to the youth of Dublin,” says Dublin Mayor Phil Best, who has been mayor since 1999 and is also a past GMA president. “These programs have made a tremendous difference in the lives of children, and the young people who participate are making a contribution to the community.”
To help youth get jobs, Dublin developed the Summer Youth Program, in which businesses agree to hire youth for a minimum of $8 and hour for at least 32 hours a week for eight weeks. Students apply for the program, and, if they qualify, they are matched with an employer. Before they start work, participants are required to take a mandatory soft skills training class developed by Holder that teaches them accountability, punctuality, respect and basic finances like how to open a bank account.
“The program was created as a way to keep them in the city or at least encourage them to come back by demonstrating there are jobs here,” says Holder. “It gives them working skills and exposes them to options. In some cases, it creates career opportunities.”
Sydney Price when she was a member of the Dublin Youth Council.
Sydney Price, now a senior at Spelman College, participated in both the Youth Council and the Teen Court when she was in high school.
“I wanted to make a change and be a part of helping students voice their opinions,” she says of her reasons for joining the Youth Council, where she served as one of the at-large representatives. “It is a liaison between youth and the adult council. It’s giving youth a voice. It was eye-opening to learn how the city is run and how decisions are made. I learned the importance of community and collaboration.”
Teen Court was the brainchild of former City Council member Julie Driggers. She heard about it from other cities, saw the benefit, and with the cooperation and support of the City Council, brought it to fruition in Dublin.
Kesla Holder served on Teen Court when she was 11, and as an adult, became a volunteer in 2014. She was hired fulltime in 2015 to oversee Teen Court, and as they developed, she was soon running Youth Council and the Summer Youth Program.
The fact that Dublin has a dedicated staff member to run these programs – which are mostly funded from the city’s budget – demonstrates the city’s commitment to ensuring their success.
“There’s not a better investment in our community than in the youth,” says Best. “We are benefitting from their service, and we are grooming future leaders.”
Jones notes there’s also another plus: “These programs can also serve as a magnet to bring people into the city,” he says. “They see the investment we are making in our young people, and may want to move here.”
And city leaders hope that the youth see the impact they are making on the city and carry that forward in future endeavors.
“I tell students they can always make a difference,” Holder says. “They don’t have to wait to be an adult. They can make a difference now. We are providing ‘now’ to our current students. They amaze me daily.”
About the Author
Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.
ENGAGE: Connecting With Georgia's Children and Youth is a Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia City Solutions initiative that highlights and supports cities and city officials as they engage and connect with children and youth in their communities and address the issues they face.