By: Katie Sobiech
When reading the local newspaper or watching the news, one will find a not-so-pretty portrait painted of our youth here in the city of Akron. Fights, drugs, gunshots, violence, court cases…these are the topics that seem to “highlight” our youth in the news, but there’s another side that’s rarely spoken of – the ones who are making a positive change in the community.
Three years ago, Billy Soule, Assistant to the Mayor, founded Peacemakers, a group of youth involved in civic and community affairs. These teens meet monthly to discuss making our city a better place, as well as immerse themselves in volunteer activities year-round.
It began several years ago when Mayor Donald Plusquellic asked Soule to put together a Youth Advisory Council.
Soule envisioned something more.
“I felt we needed to put together a group that stood for something,” Soule said, “I didn’t want to have the kind of program where the teens learn some things, get a certificate and then you never see them again.”
Instead he wanted to bring teens together so they could truly feel that they were a part of the community in a meaningful way.
“I had this vision. We don’t talk about religion because this is government, but it was truly a vision, and the name, ‘Peacemakers’ came to me. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God’,” Soule recalled.
Falling Into Place
Since then, everything has seemed to fall in place nicely.
They partnered with the Juvenile Court, United Way, Info Line, Akron/Canton Food Bank, Akron Bar Association, and Akron Police Department.
“Our partners come in and talk to our young people so that they can be well-rounded in what’s going on, who represents them, and what organizations they can go to if their family is having problems. That’s mainly what it’s all about, so young people can access services within the community,” Soule said.
Willa Keith, a former police sergeant with the Akron Police Department also works side-by-side with Soule, playing a crucial role in the running of Peacemakers.
“With my background in policing I have formed our neighborhood watches, was a community police officer out there in the park, walking the neighborhood, talking to the neighbors,” she said of her experience.
“I challenged the neighbors in the community, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something’. You have to teach people how to solve their own problems,” she continued.
“Together we wanted to teach the teens how government works because if you’re going to be advising the Mayor on things, asking him questions and telling him things, you’ve got to know how it operates,” Soule said.
“When the kids come in here and say ‘Mrs. Keith, this is happening at my school’, I say ‘Well what are YOU going to do about it?’. I ask ‘What is your plan to solve the problem?’ because they say ‘They won’t do anything about it’. I tell them, ‘You are they’. These teens are the future, they are the solution.” Keith said.
Giving The Youth a Voice
“The Mayor wants to hear the youth’s voice and see that we’re doing something good for the community and outreaching; reaching out to our fellow students and classmates,” Telayne Keith, a teen on the Executive Committee of Peacemakers, said.
“Our job is to develop teens as leaders, giving them tools and an education. We make sure they’re leading at meetings and thinking about ways they can solve their own problems,” Mrs. Keith said.
Through this program young people are given opportunities to get involved.
“You can’t change anything unless you’re involved in it. Many of them have started to make changes in their lives. Some were shy and are now leaders,” Soule said.
Soule shares his love for the community.
“We have embraced this community and our young people are learning some things that 99.9% of the young people in Akron won’t have the opportunity to,” Soule said. “They won’t be able to sit down with the Mayor and question him, or City Council, the Juvenile Judge, or Chief of Police.”
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The teens realize that their words mean nothing unless lived out.
“We practice what we preach,” Dionna Stokes, also a part of the Executive Committee, said.
Volunteerism is one of the biggest parts of this program.
“Different community opportunities come around, maybe a soup kitchen needs help or there’s an event like Global Youth Service Day, so we are able to volunteer during the entire year,” Keith shared.
Going out and promoting peace and civics in the city, setting an example for the youth and teaching about how the government works is what they do in a nutshell, Akil-Buai Gregory, on the Executive Committee, shared.
The teens are also put in charge of events.
“You have to give them that responsibility. It’s about letting them grow and putting them in those positions” Mrs. Keith said.
Not All Youth Are Bad
“A lot of people feel that young people are the problem, so we wanted to have a group that was part of the solution,” Soule shared.
This meant getting them involved in civic and community affairs, teaching them about police, the justice system and everything else that goes on in the city.
“An issue I see in the community is that our youth are underestimated. Peacemakers tries to improve the lines of communication between the youth and our city officials so that we can improve the image of youth in Akron. It’s a really big problem,” Jasmine Wyatt, President of Peacemakers, said.
She says that they hold a State of Youth Address in order to open the lines of communication.
“Some people might think that everything’s bad and there’s no way teens like us can do anything good for the community; that we might as well just sit at home and watch MTV all day,” Keith said, “But we can give back – we can volunteer. We can show that we have a positive side and that we’re trying to do something better for the community.”
Fun, Safe Activities For Teens
The teens shared that another reason their peers get into trouble is because they don’t have anything else better to do.
“Teens these days can’t really find activities to do besides sports. Not everybody is athletic and it’s kind of hard to get involved in things out there so they turn to drugs and bad things like that. So we try to provide them with things to do like our Teen Expo,” Stokes said.
The 3rd Annual Teen Expo will be held on August 18th this year and all teens in Akron and its surrounding communities are encouraged to attend.
“We organize different community groups to come out, share information about things that concern teenagers and make it fun. We have games and cotton candy… it’s like a youth fair,” Keith said.
“We bring in local talent so they can be recognized and make sure everyone is able to have fun but learn at the same time,” Gregory said.
This event is for ages 13-18 and free to all.
“And it doesn’t matter what neighborhood you’re from or what school you go to,” Wyatt said.
To find out more about Peacemakers and how you can join, make sure to check out Part Two coming next week! You can also go to their website: akronpeacemakers.org.