Empowering Youth to Impact Their Community

Empowering Youth to Impact Their Community

By Megan Miller

The seed for a teen-led program in Rapid City was planted in 2007 when city council members presented a youth engagement initiative. The Strengthening Families Taskforce was developed with a subcommittee focused on youth engagement. Their desire was to have a Youth City Council that would drive the youth-led initiative.  

Three years later, the community created Authentic Youth Civic Engagement that included subcommittees focusing on city, school, and community engagement. In 2013, with the aid of the Youth Engagement Coordinator, Kristin Kiner, teens transformed the initiative into a youth-led community wide movement and rebranded it Teen Up. The Teen Up Ambassador program became a platform for young people to share their voice and advocate for change in building a stronger community together.  Adult partners collaborate with the young people to help them get the tools they need for success.

Students first brought a proposal to the Mayor's office and City Council leadership to create a Youth City Council (YCC) in 2017, and then again in 2019. The amended proposal for the YCC was approved through resolution for the Rapid City Council in 2019 and the first 18 young people were sworn into their roles in January of the following year.

Adults that Empower Youth

Kristin Kiner has offered spaces for students to volunteer together to serve their community by joining existing opportunities or developing their own youth-led service projects.One of Kristin’s favorite parts about her role has been witnessing first-hand how youth passionately pursue their visions. In her observations, adults are more prone to overworking the issues and losing the passion they started with. In contrast, youth tend to execute the project quickly with the excitement that comes with the initial energy of the idea.

Teen Up and YCC are incredible models that have connected youth with positive adults in the community. Research has proven that the more meaningful relationships our adolescents have with various groups of peers and with invested, safe adults, the better choices they are empowered to make as they grow. With one positive adult in their life, a teen’s poor decision-making declines by 50%, and with  two or three it can almost disappear.

Teens Impact Community

Hannah Churchill is a freshman majoring in government and sociology at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD. She has played a vital role in transforming her experience of volunteering with the Teen Up program to the creation of the YCC. 

Tell us about your experiences with YCC and your role in helping it become a reality. I was part of the group of students who wanted to form a YCC. We wrote a proposal and got together with the mayor and common council leadership to present that proposal, but we did not get the proposal through (in 2017). A couple years later I decided it was still something I was interested in doing for Rapid City so I got another group of students together. We reworked the proposal with some adult mentors in the city and we presented it to the mayor and the common council. It ended up going through and we had YCC start that following year. 

The YCC is a channel for communication between youth in the city and representatives. We attend City Council meetings and we write memorandums, which are like fancy letters to the common council to tell them what we support about what they are doing or how we feel about different issues they are looking at. 

We have monthly meetings in the common council chambers. If some issue within the common council interests us we take it to our peers and put it on our agenda for the month. We vote on what we want to do with that issue. We can abandon it if no one really cares about it, or we can move it forward to a memorandum work group. Then we would have meetings later that month to write the memorandum. 

When the proposal didn’t go through in 2017, what kept you going? I knew we were important in the community because I did a lot of volunteer activities and I saw how much they impacted community members. I knew that having our voice heard at a bigger level could get those activities shown on a bigger level.

What were your favorite parts of the YCC? One of my favorite things that I got to work on was a land swap deal with the city and the Native American community. We talked with different Native American groups, went to different activities around the city, did a lot of research, and wrote a memorandum. It was really fun and we ended up making a lot of friends within the city with people we’d never met before. They were really appreciative of what we were doing.

Another one of my favorite parts was getting to meet almost everyone on the council and form some sort of relationship with them, which I thought was pretty cool because they had previously seemed like people I would never interact with. 

What would you say to someone who wants to get involved? I would say, just do it! I’m not the kind of person to just jump into things, but I did with the YCC because I thought it sounded important and I was getting a lot of encouragement from other people. I was scared because I didn’t know anything about government at all. I decided to just do it, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done! 

How has the experience on the YCC impacted you? It impacted what I chose to do with my life. It definitely made me a better communicator and it made me more open minded because I had the chance to meet a lot of different people with a lot of different opinions. I learned how to listen to them and hear what they were saying rather than immediately thinking something because of just one thing they said. I got the chance to dig deeper and talk to them and have real conversations. 

Grace Dodds is pursuing a degree in Occupational Therapy as a freshman at Augustana University. Grace is a passionate volunteer and advocate for youth involvement. She was an active member of Teen Up and one  of the 18 adolescents serving on the first YCC. Grace had already begun to discover her passion for volunteering as she tagged along with her mom who worked for a nonprofit. 

How did you push through the scary feelings to try something new? I was really scared to go to those meetings, but I’m really glad I started. It opened a lot of doors for me and it has gotten me to where I am and who I am today. If I hadn’t gone to that first meeting, I would have been a totally different person. I got more and more involved and I got to know some of the other regular people because we had a group that would frequently attend.

What do you appreciate about the time you had on the YCC? It was really nice to get together with a bunch of other youth to discuss city things in a very civil manner. I like that it creates an environment that allows us to discuss things openly and be very understanding and accepting about other people’s views even if they are different from our own. 

How has your experience impacted you? When I was introduced to service, my mentors would make me go in front of a crowd and speak about my experiences. I’m a really good speaker now. It doesn’t scare me as much to get in front of people and it has helped me build my confidence in speaking.

I’ve done a lot of networking around the community. Those people have given me so much valuable advice about what I can accomplish and where I can go if I ever need anything. It’s really awesome to have the support from so many different areas of the community. 

It’s really a big deal to have that network because they will support you with the ideas you have of how to move forward, write you letters of recommendation, and ultimately help you hone your skills. They are really good mentors to learn from because they are familiar with the community, know how to work it, and make it a better place. That is one of the biggest things I’ve gotten from all my volunteering and my service is making those connections – having those people to help me know what I can do and how I can use my skills best to help others. 

What would you say to someone who wants to get involved? The biggest thing is making that first step, which is really scary. You may feel like a total newbie and like you don’t know anything, but everyone starts there. If you’re with the right people who value service as much as you do, they will respect you 100% and they will take your ideas into consideration. I’ve had a lot of people thank me for the things I’ve done and I was astounded because I had no idea that I impacted others that much.

It’s rewarding when you can see the impact, but you have to know that even if you can’t see it, it really does still impact people.

Service isn’t all about work. It’s about enjoying what you do and being passionate. It was a big deal for me to get involved with a community of volunteers. You all know each other and you’re having fun. You also feel more empowered to go out and accomplish bigger things because you have a body of people behind you.

Tristan Eizinger is a junior at Rapid City Stevens, and is the current treasurer of the YCC. As Tristan acclimated to his role with YCC, he’s learned to have the courage to ask the questions on his mind, even if they seem silly at first. 

What kind of impact have you had since joining the YCC? Being a role model that others look up to is magnified on YCC. 

What have you done as a part of the YCC? We got to go on a summer tour and explore our city. It’s really eye-opening to see how much our city does for those in need and how many different organizations we have. We got to then explore more options with those organizations and partner with them. The activities are cool, but for me it’s the knowledge and just that experience changes how you think about your city and what you can do to impact it. 

We assess ourselves as a council – we have retreats yearly and we talk about things that are going well and that aren’t going well. It’s cool because everyone is open about it, so if something isn’t working, let’s change it.

What has been your favorite part of being on the YCC? It’s really empowering how many great advisors/youth coordinators support us in everything we do. I think that’s honestly my favorite part – having that backing and knowing that you can do a lot and that they are there to help you as well. We are really working toward just having a better community. 

What would you say to another teen who wants to get involved? Just go for it! Just get right in – you’ll figure it out as you go. If you overthink it or say, “Oh, when I have time,” you’re never going to do it. I think it’s important, even if you have a busy schedule, to prioritize things that make the most difference and are the most helpful. 

Even doing small things gets you connected in so many different ways. You meet all these different people and it can snowball from there. You can really start making a difference. Believe in yourself and know that who you are is important and you can contribute in any way!

What have adults done to help you feel empowered? The biggest thing is having a person that will be there to support you, even if they don’t necessarily agree with something you’re doing. They are there to help you, they will listen to you, and consider your ideas.

Megan Stagner is a junior at Rapid City Stevens and a current member of the YCC who is serving on the health and wellness committee.

What are characteristics that YCC members have? We are working toward a lot of diversity and we are looking for people who are trustworthy, reliable, independent, easy to be around, and easy to talk to. We do a lot of public outreach. 


In what areas have you been growing since joining YCC? I had not really done any community work prior to this. It felt like everyone else knew what they were doing and knew what to expect. I would make mistakes when I was talking on the podium, and you just have to get over it. Things moved on and I adjusted. It doesn’t take long, everybody on there is pretty nice – they want you to succeed.

What have you learned from serving on the health and wellness committee? That we’re really not all that different. Everybody has struggles that they deal with. It’s just really important to remember that everybody has a bad day every now and then and everybody needs a little help here and there. That’s something that my eyes weren’t really open to before I started working on the committee. 

What would you say to another teen who wants to get involved? It’s easier said than done, but just go for it. There’s nothing that can go wrong from helping out with your community. There are so many resources for kids and adults that want to do something. I’ve realized I can get in contact with anyone I want to!

What would you say to adults who would like to encourage teens? Be a good listener for kids, be open, be there, and take action when we share things with you.

As these teens illustrate, showing up and having the courage to share our gifts with those around us can change our future. Walking side by side with our peers or with youth can change not only their lives, but also ours, and the trajectory of our communities. Take time to journal and/or pray about the ways you may continue, or start, having an impact today.


Originally published in Gritty Faith Volume 15 as the Restoration Ranch feature written by Megan Miller.



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