HARRISTON – Mapleton, Minto and Wellington North have hired Erin Raftis to identify underrepresented youth in a new position: municipal youth intern.
Over the course of the summer Raftis, 21, is expected to identify and reach out to youth aged 13 to 19 who are currently not a part of community clubs or organizations.
The three municipalities will take her findings to create a strategy to better address youth needs.
A resident of Harriston and current communications and multimedia studies student at McMaster University, Raftis said she is able to relate to youth in this role.
“I love that it’s an opportunity to actually make good change in my community… Hopefully over the next couple of years I will be able to start something so that we have a really engaged community around here,” she said.
Youth helping youth is exactly why the Rural Ontario Institute (ROI) established a grant and the internship, Raftis explained.
“For the ROI, youth is 15 to 29, so they wanted someone in that age range to get youth researching about youth,” she said.
The ROI developed the Municipal Internship Program to encourage municipalities to facilitate more youth engagement across rural Ontario. The program has provided grants to 10 rural communities for summer interns.
Wellington North was one of the successful ROI funding recipients and decided to use the grant in partnership with its neighbouring municipalities, Mapleton and Minto.
Already Raftis has begun to tailor research to the three communities.
In northern Wellington the focus is on ages 13 to 19, explained Minto marketing and community development coordinator Taylor Keunen.
“We have never had this kind of position before,” she said. “Over the past three or four years, depending on the municipality, we’ve had youth action councils in place … but now we are just looking for that extra level to connect with those youth that we haven’t been able to.”
Getting to the next level means working against stigmas, Raftis told the Advertiser.
“Some businesses definitely are taking youth seriously, but a lot of youth maybe even now just think that people aren’t taking them seriously,” she said.
A month into the role, Raftis has spent much of her time getting a sense of each community and reaching out to service providers and organizations currently working with youth. She has spoken to classes at Norwell District Secondary School in Palmerston and Wellington Heights Secondary School in Mount Forest.
Raftis said she has plans to provide youth with creative safe spaces to express their opinions. Some of her ideas include chalkboard walls where youth can draw what they are feeling, and interactive community maps where youth can identify where they like to hangout.
“Youth aren’t necessarily going to want to sit down and answer questions,” she said.
“We have been trying to take a really informal approach and just ask them their opinions because the commitment is hard or there are reasons they can’t get places.”
She added, “It’s kind of interesting the anonymity about it … People don’t feel pressured that this is my words going out there. They can feel free to … leave their honest idea and not feel like anyone is going to blame them for it.”
At the end of August Raftis will present a report and a youth engagement strategy to each of the three municipal councils. For now her focus is meeting with as many youth as she can.
“I just want people to, if they see me in the street, come up to me and talk to me about ideas,” said Raftis.
“They can reach out to me on my Instagram page @north4youth so if they want to direct message me and share ideas or answer our polls.”