Youths rewarded for ‘changing lives’

As a freshman at Aragon High School, Wilson Chan hoped to shed his lifelong shyness by working for a cause bigger than himself.

A few miles away, San Mateo High student Eddie Hu was searching for another way to shake things up and change the world.

Three years later, the pair is among a group of young people that has shaped San Mateo County policy by shining a light on the darker parts of teenage life on the Peninsula: violence, sex, gangs, mental health and substance abuse.

Their report on the lack of youth-adult relationships was the driving force behind the county’s mentoring fair to expose its 6,000 employees to the 22 nonprofit mentoring agencies that helped 1,500 kids last year.

Today, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will honor Chan, Hu and 19 other members of the county’s Youth Commission for winning the 2008 National Association of Counties Acts of Caring Award. The national honor, which recognizes innovative volunteer programs that improve quality of life, will be presented to Chan and Hu at a Capitol Hill breakfast ceremony Thursday.

For Hu, who has served on youth-led groups since the seventh grade, the work is particularly meaningful.

“Helping out at a soup kitchen is nice, but it’s just one night,” he said. “We’re changing policy. I know we’re changing lives.”

Their 2007 Adolescent Report provided both a snapshot of the health of county teens and policy recommendations to improve it. The youth commissioners designed the survey, distributed it to peers across the county and crunched the data. They followed up with focus groups to better understand the implications of their findings before presenting them to supervisors.

In addition to the push for mentoring, the report sparked the County Manager’s Office and Health Department to begin working on five local television shows focusing on teen issues. Next month, youth commissioners will again come before supervisors to push for more opportunities for noncollege-bound kids to learn trades.

County health Officer Scott Morrow said that the group’s report has been used as a rallying point not only for county lawmakers but for those working in nonprofits, churches and city governments as well.

“It’s been incredible. They’re being heard all over the county,” Morrow said. “Inclusion of [youths] into decision-making is much higher than it has been in the past and I attribute that directly to the work the Youth Commission has been doing.”

tbarak@examiner.com

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