MARION — High school students convene once a month on a Saturday morning at City Hall, with Mayor Nick AbouAssaly presiding, to discuss leadership and local government and give feedback about what they want to see in their city.
Linn-Mar student Sam Alexman, 17, said that while she is thinking about attending school outside Eastern Iowa, the monthly meetings of the Marion Youth Council have sparked an interest in making Marion her permanent home someday.
“I feel pride in Marion,” Alexman said.
Meeting with city leaders like the Parks and Recreation and Water Department directors has given her a greater understanding of her city. Before, she “wasn’t aware what they were doing in the community,” she said.
Before joining the council, she didn’t think of Marion as a city that was growing and changing. Now, she sees potential.
The city asks for 10 names of sophomores or juniors at Marion and Linn-Mar high schools to be considered for the Marion Youth Council. Currently, the council has about 20 members. It is a yearlong commitment, with the opportunity to stay on after the first year.
AbouAssaly said he started the council at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year to engage students in city government, give them the opportunity to meet city representatives and “decision-makers,” and offer their input.
This Saturday, Marion communications manager Amber Bisinger asked the students to spend some time on the city’s redesigned website and provide feedback on its user-friendliness, adaptability to different devices such as phones and tablets, and its appeal to a younger demographic.
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AbouAssaly, who starts each council meeting with a discussion about leadership, said it’s “energizing” to meet with young people.
“I’m interested in developing positive leaders for the future of our town, people who are emotionally invested in the town and its progress, who have a connection with the city and are committed to seeing it prosper,” AbouAssaly said.
As someone who grew up in Marion, AbouAssaly said he sees a little bit of himself in the students — their talent, ambition, creativity — and “selfishly” wants to see that used for the betterment of Marion.
“I want them to come here and put that to work in our city, to help progress long after I’m done in leadership,” he said. “Even if they don’t come back, I want every young person who grew up in Marion, wherever they end up in the world, to be proud to say they grew up here.”
Linn-Mar student Stacia Drey, 17, said as part of the youth council, she feels listened to by city leaders.
“No one in here had to go up to the mayor, and say we need a youth council. It was brought to us,” Drey said. “Marion is changing so much. It’s not going to be the same even next year.”
Drey said as she thinks about college and talks to her friends about their plans, more often they are talking about moving back to Marion because they see it as a great place to raise a family.
Marion Public Library director Hollie Trenary said the Marion Youth Council is made up of a demographic often overlooked as “just a bunch of teenagers.”
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“I embrace that group like the mayor does. These are our future leaders of Marion, folks we hope to keep around,” said Trenary, who met with the council last year to get their thoughts on the library.
Plans for a new library are underway, and four students with the Marion Youth Council have volunteered to sit on a subcommittee that is working to create a vision for the new building.
“I’m excited to get them engaged here,” Trenary said. “They have great ideas. They think differently than how we think and city government day-in and day-out thinks, and I think they have a really important voice we should be listening to, now and in the future.
“We’re building the city we hope they raise their children in.”
In the meantime, Trenary said they are working on plans for Friday teen nights, where the library would be an open hangout spot for teens. They want a place in Uptown Marion that is for them, she said.
Marion Chamber of Commerce President Jill Ackerman talked with the council about leadership at the start of the school year.
She said the council is made up of “awesome, talented students” she hopes eventually will be part of Marion’s workforce.
“Our future will be bright if all the students are as talented as the kids participating in this program,” Ackerman said. “To get a kid up and out of bed at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to talk to leaders in the community says a lot more about the kids than anything else could.”
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