Opelika city leaders recently met to discuss ways to improve relationships with city youth.
“What I get to be part of is kind of watching some of our families and children grow up and lead them. We like to call them our next generation,” Church of the Highlands pastor Kevin Haefner explained. “And I feel like there’s such a need to just add value to not only ourselves but also to our youth.”
Church of the Highlands offers small group meetings with young members and provides opportunities to serve throughout the community, including State Rep. Jeremy Gray’s local non-profit, the Curtis House.
“My job as state representative kind of plays in hand with the Curtis House because I’m able to leverage my seat and figure out where resources are,” said Gray, a Democrat.
Gray added that his legislative seat helps him to provide community service grants for nonprofit work in his district.
As a Ward 2 native, Gray said he understood the mental and physical struggle of living in an area where the environment is not conducive to success, and how it can be discouraging.
“I have the confidence to believe [that] whatever I put my mind to, I can do,” he said. “And I think that’s powerful. That’s what I’m basically trying to translate to the younger kids.”
Richard Curry, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lee County, emphasized the organization’s mission to “inspire and enable” all young people.
“Headlines remind us every day that our young people are in crisis,” he said. “So our job at the Boys and Girls Club is to do three things for them:
"We want to make sure when you walk out that door, regardless of your circumstances, those young people that are ages 6 to 18 have academic success, healthy lifestyles and good character and leadership.”
Pastor Skip Long, manager of the city’s new Youth Incarceration Prevention Program, was also part of the panel.
“As we engage with young people there are three things that we do under this youth incarceration initiative,” he said. “Part of it is it’s very important that our kids be involved with their education. It’s important for them to understand mental health.
"And the third is them getting … job skills and the training that will help them be successful.”
Additional panelists included Opelika City School’s assistant superintendent Kenneth Burton, Sgt. Alfred White of the city's police department and school resource officer Sikuria McCurdy.
Deviating from the question-and-answer format of a previous town hall, moderator Matt Ulmer opted to have attendees break into separate groups, young and old, to encourage deep conversations.
“What I’d like to see happen is [the youth] have a candid conversation without the parents being there and possibly giving some comments that you wouldn’t otherwise have made,” Ulmer said.
Panelists Long, Haefner and Curry led the discussion for the adult group, while McCurdy, Gray and Burton led the youth group discussion, which was sparsely attended due to the junior varsity football game that night.
A similar panel event may be held soon at the high school to garner more participation.
It was also suggested that students have the option of submitting questions and topics anonymously, since some struggle with social anxiety and speaking in front of people.
“I would say this though: You can be anonymous and have a dropbox [for suggestions] in school,” Gray said. “But the only way to really get what you want is to be assertive and have representatives that can speak on your behalf.”
Gray explained that while submitted questions and comments anonymously can open a conversation, standing up actually addressing the panel will have a more powerful effect.
“Having a panel is such a great idea because if you have representatives for different groups, say we wanted to have an African American representative to talk about our issues, but also include everyone else, that would help,” Opelika High School sophomore Juanita Nix said. “Because in this community there is a lot of us to where we feel we’re being closed off, because we feel we’re not being represented very well.”