When the inaugural West Linn Youth Council first convened last fall, members were asked what they wanted to focus on.
They had just one year to make an impact before another council would be formed, presumably with an agenda of its own. What was the best way to make it count?
For West Linn High School senior Maggie McCaffrey and other council members, mental health turned out to be the issue that outpaced all others in terms of importance, thus providing the seed for a Mental Health Awareness Night event that will take place May 18 at the West Linn Adult Community Center.
"It hits home no matter your age and where you're from," McCaffrey said. "It's an important issue in the community, and we want to learn. If you're not going to have people who have a mental illness feel comfortable, then you're not going to have much of a community."
The Youth Advisory Council was created in early 2016 as an official government advisory board featuring West Linn students from grades 9-12. It was intended to provide an avenue for as many as 15 young residents to amplify their voices at City Hall, and members were selected after submitting applications to the City.
The mental health event, which runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., is open to the public and will be headlined by a keynote speech from Tamara Sale, the executive director of Portland State University's Early Assessment and Support Alliance (EASA) Center for Excellence.
"The students wanted to create a community conversation about de-stigmatizing mental illness and how to, instead, support healthy conversations around that issue," said West Linn Citizen Engagement Coordinator Courtney Flynn, who has served as the City's point person on the Youth Council.
"(The lecture will be) discussing the basics of brain health as it relates to ending stereotypes, helping yourself and your friends and creating a thriving community."
Following that lecture, which is expected to last about an hour, attendees will have the option of moving into one of two "breakout" rooms — one showcasing yoga and the other highlighting art therapy.
"(The yoga room) will be teaching people about different ways to cope with times of crisis through different positions and breathing exercises that can hopefully help," McCaffrey said. "Two students from Marylhurst University will guide the art therapy session — people will make what they make and talk about what it means for them."
McCaffrey, for her part, hopes that the event will drive awareness and combat the stigmas attached to mental health issues.
"I think it's just an uncomfortable thing for most people to talk about," she said. "It's always been super important to me. I grew up with a lot of social anxieties, and just classmates knowing how to make me more comfortable and the kindness people can take on — it makes a difference."
"It has been both exciting and rewarding to watch the students come together over such an important cause, and realize that it is a topic that must be addressed at the local level and beyond," Flynn said.
She added that the hope is for the event to carry on in years to come. McCaffrey, meanwhile, said she hopes future Youth Councils will follow this group's lead and pick a topic they truly care about.
"I can only hope that in the following years, they'll decide to focus on something that will hit an issue in our community, and try and help to make that better," McCaffrey said. "Whether it's mental illness or not doesn't really matter to me, as long as the youth are picking issues that matter to them. I like the social justice aspect of it, so I hope that continues on."