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Vermont youth crave community, and a new report points toward solutions

In a classroom, a group of adults sits in chairs in front of a young woman and a facilitator.
Vermont Council on Rural Development
The Northeast Kingdom regional forum at St. Johnsbury Academy had 20 participants. VCRD held 12 forums across the state, half for just youth and half for all ages.

Being young can be difficult. There are the travails of school and social life, and the constant anxiety of finding a place in the world. It can be isolating, too. But there are places that provide a refuge, letting teens stretch their legs and explore the world on their own terms. In Addison County, The Bristol Hub is one of them.

“Giving teens the opportunity to exist in a space without any particular expectation for productivity, just encouraging them to explore, has an immense amount of value,” said Taylor Welch-Plante, director of The Bristol Hub. “And we see it every day in how the teens that come here develop.”

Principally funded by the town, The Bristol Hub is a skatepark and community center for kids between the ages of 12 and 19. It’s a third place – not home or work/school. And it’s an access point for all sorts of social services, from cooking lessons to substance abuse counseling. And to the Vermont Council on Rural Development, it’s a model for the state.

A new report on Vermont youth from the VCRD found many struggles — with mental health, with connecting with the community, with education — but also models across the state, like The Bristol Hub, are quietly succeeding in helping young Vermonters thrive.

Many issues, from the future of the economy to the wellbeing of communities and civic engagement, are connected to young Vermonters, who will ultimately inherit the state, said Jenna Koloski, community engagement and policy director for VCRD.

Thus the Youth Opportunity Initiative was born. Through a combination of discussion forums, stakeholder interviews and an online survey, VCRD heard from over 600 people and organizations. Though the team set out to focus on one or two recommendations, they found the problems to be more wide-reaching than expected.

“We really found that there’s a lot of great work going on in Vermont, but there’s also a lot that still needs to be done to make sure our youth have what they need to succeed and feel like they connect and belong in their communities,” Koloski said.

VCRD found the challenges facing Vermont youth to be interconnected — no one issue stood on its own. Teens expressed mental health challenges, a need for community involvement, more employment and apprenticeship opportunities that better align with their schedules, and a need for transportation, particularly in the most rural areas of the state.

But the team also found models throughout the state. There are spaces like The Bristol Hub, that provide a safe place for teens to hang out and develop their interests away from the stress of school or home. Career fairs, like Kingdom Career Connect — a STEM fair in the Northeast Kingdom run by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation — help students plan for their future in a tangible way. Youth councils give young people a voice in their community, including at the state level with a 28-member State Youth Council.

“We really believe that young people want what we all want and need, right? We all want and need opportunities to engage with our peers, to have places where we can feel like we’re supported and where we have an opportunity to do things that are engaging for us,” said Nicole Miller, executive director of Vermont Afterschool and a member of the Youth Opportunity Initiative’s advisory committee.

One particularly interesting model is the community school. Introduced in Vermont as a pilot program via Act 67 in 2021, community schools provide support services for students beyond what a school would normally provide, including health care, counseling, and afterschool programs. They also work with local organizations for community service projects, mentoring, internships, and so on.

Some respondents pointed directly to the community schools model, while others mentioned characteristics of it. VCRD recommends expanding the program, which was funded using federal pandemic funding.

The next step is turning the report into something actionable, Koloski said. VCRD’s leadership summit in August will feature the topic extensively, and the organization is planning an action symposium in the fall.

“I hope that our report can help to highlight [areas of improvement], but also start the conversation around what we can do together when we bring in business leaders, community leaders, education – when we come together in support of youth,” Koloski said.

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Corrected: June 11, 2024 at 1:59 PM EDT
This story has been updated to correct the fact that the VCRD's leadership summit is in August, not next month.
Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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