Seventeen students from Falls Church’s George Mason High School have jumped in with both feet this fall to their new assignments as members of a variety of City of Falls Church boards and commissions and related volunteer groups. In an unprecedented new policy development sanctioned by the Falls Church City Council this fall, the students were officially elected and sworn in by the City Council in late October.
They have begun to participate fully in their new assignments, but only cannot vote. The initiative for this came from the City’s venerable civic activist association, the Citizens for a Better City.
Almost all the students assembled at the News-Press office last week to give reports and provide reflections on their new involvement. They came along with CBC activist Carol Loftur-Thun, who coordinated the new program.
“We are very excited about this program, something very new for a very civic minded City,” Loftur-Thun said.
The high level of interest came as a pleasant surprise, she said, and it was a goal of the the CBC to recruit students who are not considered the most popular or involved in most other activities.
“We have a lot of math and science students who stepped forward for this,” she said. “Only five have ever held a leadership role in any group before this.”
“We were especially interested in encouraging students who may not have leadership opportunities to apply,” Loftur-Thun wrote in a statement, “and to focus on interest, commitment and potential rather than past achievements.”
Every student has already attended one or two meetings of the groups to which they were appointed last month, and some said they were pleasantly surprised by how well they were received and encouraged to participate. These groups range from the Economic Development Authority, to the Human Services Advisory Committee, to the Environmental Services Commission, to volunteer civic groups like the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, and the City’s Republican and Democratic committees.
August Wilson, a newcomer to Falls Church whose parents were stationed until recently in India and the Philippines, said at the News-Press gathering that he’s already attended two meetings since being appointed to the Cable Access Corporation. “Just paying attention exposes you to what the real world is like,” he said.
Tyler Gogal said he was singled out for a welcoming introduction when he showed up for his first meeting at the Economic Development Authority. He said he found a discussion of issues surrounding solar panels “very cool to be a part of.”
Eric Clinton, who’s been around Falls Church politics for years since his father is the City’s Commissioner of the Revenue, said, “It is great overall for youth to be involved and to learn about a lot of topics.”
Marissa Allen-Lewis was elected to the Human Services Advisory Council and said it was fascinating to learn more about what’s required to qualify for food stamps and some idea of what’s involved with submitting a grant proposal.
Ian Reusch said he found his position on the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation interesting for its discussion of curb extensions at Parker and Kent Streets, and other measures to eliminate traffic congestion.
Mary Keenan was part of a discussion of the City’s leaf removal policy and its plans to encourage composting as a member of the Environmental Services Council.
Loftur-Thun credited the Executive Committee of the CBC with providing encouragement for her initiative, which she thought up last January. “Jerry Barrett, Craig Cheney, Lindy Hockenberry, Paul Handly and Ron Peppe began brainstorming with me at Mad Fox,” she said.
The goals of the effort were spelled out as creating opportunities for youth to learn about local government and civics in a hands-on way, giving students opportunities to volunteer in meaningful ways, enhancing students’ college applications, better engaging parents and peers in community issues, and demonstrating our City’s commitment to youth by giving them a voice in decisions.
Loftur-Thun conceded the idea was not entirely novel, since the Falls Church School Board led the way two years ago with a student appointee to its board. Now in college, Maeve Curtin was a youth liaison to the School Board for two years who became increasingly active in its deliberations. Her replacement starting this fall has been Zack Weitzel.
The 17 students were all interviewed by a panel of leaders from various boards, commissions and volunteer groups at the Hilton Garden Inn earlier this fall. And in the near future, there will be opportunities for many more appointees, Loftur-Thun said. With the goal being two students assigned to each organization, the number could almost double when the call goes out in the spring for more students to step up.
The current group includes five seniors, ten juniors, one sophomore and one freshman. They are:
Maraena-Allen Lewis assigned to the HSAC; Christian Autor to the Tree Commission; Camile Borja to the Housing Commission; Jacob Bruner to the Library Board of Trustees, Tiffanie Chau-Dang to the Historical Commission and the Historic Architectural Review Board; and, Tyler Gogal to the EDA.
Also, Jackson Jost and Mary Keenan to the Environmental Services Council; Hayley Loftur-Thun to the HSAC, Kiran Menon to the EDA, Ian Reusch to the CACT, Annie Wilson to the Tree Commission and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, August Wilson to the Cable Access Corporation, Varissa Chaerassangsomboon to the Falls Church Education Foundation, Eric Clinton to the F.C. Democratic Committee; and, Erin McFall to the F.C. Republican Committee.