Creating Spaces for Youth to Share Their Voices
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Hayley, 18, is a founding member of Magellan Youth Leaders Inspiring Future Empowerment (MY LIFE), a program for youth with experience in the mental health, foster care, and/or juvenile justice systems, and youth who have struggled with substance abuse. She has worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Arizona to create a support group for youth affected by mental illness, and has served on the board of Youth M.O.V.E. National, a youth-led organization that promotes youth voice and choice. Hayley currently serves on a youth work group with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and is studying business management and business communications at Arizona State University. In 2010, Hayley received the mpower award from Mental Health America for her advocacy work, both locally and nationally, to raise awareness about how substance abuse and mental illness affect youth.
What inspired you to create the MY LIFE program, who is involved, and what types of activities and projects do you work on?
I was inspired to create MY LIFE along with a few other youth because there was really a lack of places that youth could share their voice, and make a positive difference in their lives and in the community. MY LIFE is comprised of youth between the ages of 13 and 23. Many of these youth have experience with behavioral health, substance abuse, juvenile justice, and foster care. We work on a variety of projects.
One project that we have worked on is a collaboration with the state to create a youth involvement protocol. It has been given to all of the agencies in Arizona as a guide for how to effectively involve youth in their own treatment and how to give youth an opportunity to share their voice in organizations.
Another important part of MY LIFE is community awareness and education. The MY LIFE youth do many presentations locally and nationally. The youth also plan community events where different providers and agencies come together for the cause. One of these community events is MY FEST, an annual festival that is planned and produced by our youth. It brings youth-serving organizations, music, dancing, and volunteer opportunities to the community and other youth. Every year we have thousands of attendees. Another event is Youth Day at the Capitol. Our youth are given public speaking training and are paired with a mental health professional. On Youth Day at the Capitol, the youth and mental health professionals speak to their district representatives and senators on important issues affecting youth. This teaches the youth important skills, while also educating the legislators about what is working and what is not working in youth-serving systems.
What challenges did you face or lessons did you learn in starting and operating MY LIFE that other youth organizations could learn from?
A big challenge is keeping the youth involved. They like to work on projects and feel as if they are making a difference. We keep them engaged by keeping things fresh. We bring in different speakers about different issues such as recovery, addiction, mental health, resume writing, and other things that are important to them. We also make sure that we have projects for them to plan and events for them to be involved with on a regular basis. This is so the group does not do the same thing every meeting and it makes it different every time.
Often many groups become a social gathering; in order to have a sustainable and successful group you must find a balance between work and social aspects. We strike this balance by splitting the meeting time. The first portion of the meeting allows participants to get to know each other and talk first and the second half of the meeting is used to plan events, projects, and presentations, and for other business that may need to be done. We also have fun activities for our youth to attend such as bowling, baseball games, kickball games, and movies.
Drawing from your own experience and the experiences of your peers, what is the biggest thing that would make life better for children and youth?
The biggest thing would be for adults to listen to children. It happens a lot that a child is told what they need but no one even asked them what they needed or wanted. You may be surprised by how much information they already know and understand. Allow them to speak up and use their voice and truly listen to them.