Sonoma County leaders encourage teens to try challenges, get involved

'Challenge yourself. Don't think you can't do it because you haven't done it before,' one Sonoma County mayor told a group of teens in Santa Rosa Monday.|

Find your passion. Stay positive. Keep learning. Get involved.

Those were among the many bits of wisdom extended Monday night by a panel of Sonoma County elected officials and community leaders to a group of about 25 young people gathered at Chop’s Teen Club in Santa Rosa.

Between brief comments on the problems of homeless teens and the scope of drought-related emergency measures, public leaders offered life hacks for motivated teens seeking public engagement and leadership roles.

Among them? “Challenge yourself. Don’t think you can’t do it because you haven’t done it before,” Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer told those in attendance, many of them members of the 3-year-old Sonoma County Youth Empowerment Council, which sponsored the event.

“Put yourself in uncomfortable situations. That’s where you’ll truly grow,” Sonoma County Board of Education member Herman G. Hernandez said.

Santa Rosa City Schools Trustee Jenni Klose said the two most critical skills she took from high school were well-developed writing abilities and experience working with a team.

“I really believe that how you treat people every day can change your life,” county school board President Lisa Wittke Schaffner said.

But what many of the teens said most struck them during the event was what Sonoma Academy sophomore Noah Bacon called “the real people aspect.”

He noted that the 11 panelists - county supervisors, city council members, school board trustees and the superintendent of the county’s largest school district - are enmeshed in the inner workings of government yet were just a step away from the teens present.

“It felt like they were so accessible,” Montgomery High School senior Sophie Hiltebrand said.

The Youth Empowerment Council was created as a partnership between Chop’s and a Social Advocates for Youth program called Tomorrow’s Leaders Today. The group, open to high school students, aims to engage teens in community activities and local government and also hosts an empowerment conference for middle school students. There are currently 15 members.

Teens at Monday’s event had an hour to meet and talk one-on-one with the panelists during an informal mixer in advance of the question-and-answer session, during which many of the public officials spoke about their own experiences and described opportunities for young people to make their voices heard.

“There are a lot of opportunities for teens,” said Arie Markowitz, a Santa Rosa High School senior.

“We just don’t always know about them.”

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