Coalitions in Action – Secrets to Growing a Strong Youth Sector
Engaging the youth sector can prove to be a challenge for many communities. Making prevention attractive to teens, especially as an after-school activity, can be difficult when competing with the variety of other sports and clubs that are offered. Champions for Change (CFC), a prevention club at Marathon High School in the Florida Keys, at first struggled with this same dilemma. However, in the span of five years, CFC has grown to over forty participants. Tina Belotti, a Project Success Counselor, and her daughter, Christina Belotti, an English teacher at Marathon, are the dynamic mother-daughter duo behind the CFC’s youth engagement success.
“As part of my work, I’m responsible for hosting school-wide events for prevention. I looked at that and thought, well, how effective is it going to be for someone my age to share this message? Are they really going to listen to me? So that’s when we thought, let’s start a club,” explained Tina.
What began with a meager handful of students, eventually grew to the highly active club that it is today. Rarely idle, the CFC meets weekly, hosts five to six activities each month and brings in speakers from across the country to present at school assemblies, conduct leadership workshops and speak at parent events. Their efforts are in partnership with Monroe County Coalition and are also strongly supported by their school administration.
“I think oftentimes, coalitions want to fulfill their youth sector and bring them to the table, but they don’t know where to start. It can be a struggle to attract youth at first, and what we’ve learned is that if we're too easy on them, we won’t receive that level of respect and commitment that’s needed for effective work. What we’ve found is that when people start engaging with youth, they don't know what to do with them - I actually think they're even a little afraid of them. Establishing respect with the students is something we work really hard at, and I think it ultimately makes a big difference,” Tina continued.
“This year, we’ve decided to put our members through an application process. Just like how they would have to try out for the school volleyball team, we’ve told them they’re auditioning to join the CFC. Part of it is a form they will fill out and a recommendation from their teacher, but another big part of it is what kind of example they are setting. Are they the type of person to hold a door open for someone whose hands are full? Are they uplifting their peers? It comes down to things like this because ultimately the CFC members are meant to set an example,” said Christina.
“We’ve set strict guidelines as well. We have them do their own research before each meeting, and we require them to attend every Tuesday. If they’re also involved in sports, we use this a teaching opportunity for them to learn how to advocate for themselves and explain to their coaches why they can’t make practice on those days. Behind the scenes, we work with our principal to help make allowances, but it’s good practice for them to learn how to speak to adults,” said Tina.
“Although we have this audition process set in place, we still remain open to taking any qualified student. We’ve decided to fine-tune the process because the larger our group grows, the more important it is that everyone is completely dedicated and focused, otherwise it can get unruly. If someone wants to join that also happens to be in six other clubs and play multiple sports, we’ll ask them to really consider where their passion lies and if they’re truly willing to commit to coming every week and being active in discussions. This keeps the CFC sharp and ensures everyone is pulling their weight.”
“A big reason that students are interested in joining is because it’s truly become a cool club to be part of. Most other clubs at our school might meet once a month, and you won’t even know exactly what the club does. The CFC is very active and highly visible. If you’re part of Champions for Change, you’re out at lunch tables doing something at least once a month. Our messaging is all across campus, and there’s a big auditorium event at least four or five times a year,” added Christina.
Since some coalitions might still be in the beginning stages of building their own youth engagement, Tina shared that, “to get to that point, we started by attracting students with free swag. It sounds materialistic, but handing out bracelets, inexpensive backpacks or even snacks and candy is how our club first got recognized. It takes persistence and continual outreach to get started but finding ways to hook their interest can be your opening for growing that sector.”