At Cumberland Youth Commission, young voices are heard

At Cumberland Youth Commission, young voices are heard

The Cumberland Youth Commission, composed of students in grades 7 through 12, wrapped up another year of fundraising, organizing projects and presenting ideas to improve life in Cumberland to town officials. Above, Mayor Bill Murray, Sue Varela of the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Learning and representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Community Care Alliance appear with youth commission members. The groups collaborated to host a Mental Health Awareness Fair in May.

CUMBERLAND – Age hasn’t stood in the way of the Cumberland Youth Commission making things happen and starting initiatives to better their town.

The commission, comprised of students in grades 7-12, is a youth-driven group that organizes fundraisers to assist families in Cumberland bearing financial burdens, volunteers at the Cumberland Animal Shelter and other facilities, and hosts conversations about mental health issues in teens, a problem the group says is ongoing in Cumberland schools.

“That’s the goal of this, is for them to see issues in their community and from a youth perspective, be able to provide solutions or ideas that perhaps the adults wouldn’t see, wouldn’t be aware of,” said Sue Varela, program coordinator at the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Learning and adviser to the commission.

Students this year have discussed everything from the problems with infrastructure and roads in Cumberland to launching a “self-love” project, with a goal to reach out to older elementary school children and develop activities or curriculum to show children that “beauty is more than skin-deep,” said Varela.

Through their research, she said, commission members discovered that the average onset of depression was 14 years old, when it used to be around 26 years old.

One 14-year-old student, said Varela, told fellow commissioners, “I just finished my health class, and nobody said anything about depression or anxiety. How come?”

Commission members met with Mayor Bill Murray, Supt. Bob Mitchell and a school psychologist to talk about implementing some type of curriculum around mental health at the middle school level, an idea drawing praise from officials.

“People count kids out,” Varela said, but this group feels like it’s being heard.

“They have a voice, and they can make something impactful happen,” she said.

The group, made of up roughly 20 youths that attend public, charter and private schools in town as well as children who are homeschooled, has wrapped up another year of activities.

Young people raised $600 this year to help three Cumberland families in need of heating assistance in the winter, a program the commission has been offering since 2009, and organized a food and toiletry drive at the Northern Rhode Island Food Pantry.

Both of the initiatives, Varela said, were launched after members discovered classmates were keeping their coats on at home in the winter because they didn’t have heat, or not coming to school because they didn’t have laundry detergent to clean their clothes.

Commission members learned that food stamps can’t be used to purchase items like detergent, leaving some children with unwashed clothes and embarrassed to go to school.

Hearing these stories about their classmates, Varela said, stands out to members and they want to do something about it.

The Cumberland Youth Commission, first established in 2007, was once made up of high school students with plans to attend mostly elite schools, but is now a more diverse group that represents different age groups, interests, life experiences, goals and perspectives, said Varela.

“They learn, and they grow together,” she said, not merely in skill, but in their support for their fellow commissioners.