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Foss: What do Schenectady's youth need?

Foss: What do Schenectady's youth need?

Foss: What do Schenectady's youth need?
Christian Mora, left, and Deceane Martinez learn a secret handshake during the Schenectady Youth Summit Wednesday at Proctors.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette photographer

Schenectady High School doesn't have a mentor center. 

But for a brief period of time on Wednesday afternoon, four teenagers imagined that it does. 

The center is staffed by college students, they decide, because the challenges of high school and adolescence are fresh in their minds. It has a conference room, where the mentors can meet with teachers and students and parents. And it has a room for students to hang out, with bookshelves and bean bag chairs and therapy dogs. 

"You can go to a guidance counselor for academic problems, but they get overwhelmed," one of the teens, sophomore Christian Mora, tells me.

"A mentor is someone else to go to," Ashley Dataram, also a sophomore, explains. "Not everyone has that one teacher that they have a good relationship with." 

Mora and Dataram both participated in a day-long summit aimed at giving Schenectady teens the opportunity to share their concerns with community leaders and come up with ideas for changing things for the better. 

I sat in on the brainstorming session that saw the mentor center grow from a germ of an idea into a more concrete and specific proposal, and there's a chance that it -- or some version of it -- will come to fruition. 

Listening to the teens, one thing was clear: Schenectady needs a place where teenagers can go for support and guidance, that is safe, staffed by trusted adults and welcome to all. When I asked Mora where students at the high school hang out, he shrugged and replied, "The courtyard." 

The summit was sponsored by The Schenectady Foundation, the non-profit organization that has invested heavily in programs for youth in recent years. This investment is ongoing, and ideas presented at the summit might receive Foundation support, according to executive director Robert Carreau.  

"We want to listen to the youth," Carreau said. "We want to challenge young people to come up with [a project] we might be able to do. Is there an idea here that might trigger something?" 

It's a potentially exciting process -- one where teenagers tell the adults what they need, and the adults respond. 

The teens behind the mentor center seemed to believe that Schenectady lacks a place where teens in need can go for help with problems at home or at school. They see mentors as people who can relate to students, but also provide parents and teachers with an understanding of why a student is struggling. 

"What if it's the parent's fault that a student is failing?" asked Dataram. 

"What if the parent is the problem?" Mora asked. 

These questions don't have easy answers, but the summit provided the teens in attendance with an opportunity to imagine the answers. 

If I learned anything, it's that most teens want help navigating their troubles, but don't always know where to turn. While some are lucky enough to forge a close relationship with a teacher, coach or some other adult, many feel very much alone. 

As I was leaving the summit, representatives from local non-profit organizations and community institutions were gathering to discuss what they'd learned from the youth.

It was something of a role reversal -- one that might yield promising results. 

I don't know whether we'll ever see a mentor center at Schenectady High School, but if the adults in the room were listening, they'll emerge from the summit with a better understanding of what Schenectady's youth need. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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