Jordan Elliott could spend Tuesday afternoons playing video games or watching television, but the 17-year-old would much rather be helping to make Olathe’s future a little brighter.
And he’s not alone.
Elliott, a senior at Olathe Northwest High School, is one of 10 students sitting on the Olathe Teen Council, a community-service organization run by the city.
The teenagers devote every other Tuesday afternoon to planning acts of kindness around the city. In the past few months, they’ve taught arts and crafts to elementary school students, written thank-you cards to the fire department and collected canned goods for a local food bank, among other projects.
They also sit on city committees, where they learn how local government works and offer their input.
“It’s been really eye-opening to see how the city government really works,” Elliott said. “And it’s fun to be right there and help out. My opinions and perspective as a high school student are actually respected, which is really cool.”
The Teen Council recently met at a conference room in City Hall to plan out the group’s next round of activities.
They cooked lunch for families at the Ronald McDonald Longfellow House in Kansas City last weekend. Later this month, they plan to volunteer at the Polar Plunge at Shawnee Mission Park. In February, they’re going to help organize a Family Fun Day at the Olathe Public Library.
And even though all their plans are serious business, they exchange details with friendly smiles and laughter.
“We’ve all become really good friends,” said Clare Robbins, 16.
Robbins, a sophomore at an online school, joined the Teen Council because she finds city government fascinating and she loves volunteering. Plus, she wants to make a difference.
“Every community needs to hear the voices of the youth,” she said. “It helps the city boards see an entirely new perspective, which is important, but also allows them to be more creative.”
The students are encouraging their friends and younger siblings to follow in their footsteps.
“My little brother is a total jock but I’ve taken him to a couple events and he’s realizing now that there are things he likes to do besides football,” said Erin Sawyer, a junior at Olathe Northwest. “It’s pretty cool to be able to inspire him. A lot of kids have potential to do great things; they just don’t realize it.”
Most of the Teen Council members had already dabbled in community service before joining the organization. It was part of the reason they were chosen. To join the Teen Council, they needed to fill out an extensive application and earn letters of recommendation from teachers.
All of them participate in other extracurricular activities as well as the Teen Council.
But they all say that juggling Teen Council with their other priorities is definitely worth it.
For some of them, the experience offers a glimpse into the future.
Elliott, who has served as the teen representative on the Olathe Persons with Disabilities Advisory Board for the past two years, thinks he may have found his true calling. Even though he graduates in June, he plans to stay involved.
“I’ll continue to be a volunteer on the board and I hope to one day become a full-time member,” he said. “Working with people with special needs is always going to be a big part of my life, whether it’s through volunteer work or a possible career.”
Other members say careers in city or national government are options.
But that’s the future, and when it comes to Teen Council, the teenagers say today is more important.
“We’re the next generation of the city,” said Annie Schugart, a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas. “If we get involved now, we’ll have a better future.”