A Virtual Space for Meaningful Youth Voice

Written by: Anton Spalding, Middle School Professional Development Specialist, Prime Time Palm Beach County

In early May 2020, Prime Time Palm Beach County held its first ever virtual meetings with teens from four local teen advisory councils (groups of youth who take on genuine leadership roles to help an organization, school or community group achieve its mission). The purpose of the virtual meetings was to provide support and a safe space for young people to voice their concerns and experiences amidst the life-changing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Between the two meetings held, ten youth attended, along with four practitioners, a parent, and two mental health therapists. 

The teens openly shared some of the issues that they and other young people, sixth to twelfth grade, are currently facing. What was on the minds of these youth leaders? 

One youth said, “I feel like the transition to distance learning has put a lot of stress on a lot of people, especially my peers.” 

Another shared, “I have a couple friends who deal with anxiety a lot. So, them being in the house a lot…being trapped in…their anxiety is getting worse. They just need ways to cope with it.” 

“Teachers are kind of giving us a lot of work” said one middle school council member, “and…sometimes we’re stressing out because we might have too much work, or we’re stressing out because sometimes the teachers forget to put the due dates and we’re not going to know when it’s due. It’s just kind of been stressful. Some of the kids probably still don’t have laptops…to do online classes, and some of them don’t know how to use the technology, too.”  She continued, “Some teachers think since we’re home, we have extra time.” 

Another youth agreed, adding, “If a sibling has to prioritize his younger sibling’s work and then he has to focus on his after, that’s just more work.” He continued, “To add onto what [someone else] said earlier about anxiety, I see the opposite as well in certain friends, where they’re the outgoing type and they like to just be the livelihood of the group, and now that they’re trapped in their home, I feel like they’re feeling more depressed and lonely now.” 

One of the high school participants had this to say: “As a senior—me and a lot of other people that I know that are also seniors—it’s been very hard to finish school in general because we’re missing out on everything that we’ve been excited to get in our senior year, like grad bash, prom, graduation, senior night, senior week… We were really excited for that since freshman year, even middle school…and to have that all taken away in less than a month…it was just really hard for everyone to sink that in and on top of that, finish our work and then pick a college and make these big decisions. That’s been the hardest for me and the rest of my senior friends.” 

Those earnest expressions moved one practitioner to suggest that maybe program staff could try to work with teens to develop ideas so that, as he put it, “maybe when everything is over we could try to recreate some of these memories where we can. It’s a lot that you guys are going through, and us as adults…sometimes, you don’t think about that impact.” 

Another practitioner who serves as director at a local community-based out-of-school time program added that, from the parent perspective, “being home and having kids eat all day is a financial burden…so being able to have those free resources–free food and hot meals–for the families, it really helps them in this time.” 

The Palm Beach County Youth Services Department provided two mental health therapists who shared practical resources for dealing with difficult emotions and meaningful insights into the power of positive thinking, goal setting and self-reflection. It was clear that these meetings provided a safe space for all involved to express their thoughts and concerns and to receive acknowledgement and support. Several attendees remarked that they enjoyed the experience and benefited from it. 

Prime Time is hoping that future virtual meetings such as these will provide teens with a convenient and inclusive opportunity to give meaningful input on important matters, sharing insight into experiences and perspectives that they feel might be helpful for local out-of-school time organizations, funders and practitioners to keep in mind while working with teens. As new resources and supports are developed, we hope that teen leaders will join in informing many of the ideas that are eventually implemented. 

As our organization moves forward into a rapidly changing future, we at Prime Time Palm Beach County want to ensure that we are continuing to deliver on our organization’s mission to help children and youth succeed by offering resources, learning opportunities, connections, and a strong support system that strengthens and expands quality in the out-of-school time field in a way that genuinely benefits young people. 

Who better to help us navigate what the future brings than the young people who are at the heart of the work we do and who are already developing their tremendous potential as the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.