PHOTO PROVIDED - YAC members and Rep. Cedric Hayden testify for HB 3030 in 2017. Left to right: Hayden, Tori Raade, Emma Leigh Hernandez.

Cottage Grove has been on many forefronts throughout the years. Its Youth Advisory Council (YAC), a group of middle and high schoolers from the area who advise and participate in City Council meetings and planning, is one shining example. Some other cities have similar organizations but not all of them have won accolades from the Governor or passed a state law.  

Forced to curtail its activities due to Covid restrictions, Cottage Grove’s YAC is looking to come roaring back into action now that the mask mandates are being lifted. YAC is open to all youth who reside within the South Lane School district boundaries (candidates do not have to live inside the city limits), including homeschooled, private, charter school, as well as public school students. YAC members are selected to bring the youth perspective of the area’s younger citizens to the council’s attention. Students in grades 7-12 serve one-year terms following the school year and can serve multiple times. Applications are available either at City Hall or online at cottagegroveor.gov/yac and must be turned in by Friday, April t. The YAC Kickoff is scheduled for April 4 and the YAC meets on the 1st and 3rd Mondays.

Jess Campbell was on the inaugural Youth Advisory Council when it was first formed in the 2004/2005 school year. “It was a really powerful experience, Richard Meyers provided a lot of structure for us, but it was very interactive and fun. We really got to experience the not-so-pretty parts of running a city. YAC was able to attend the work sessions prepping for council meetings and tour the wastewater treatment plant, getting a real view of what all the city and council have to do. My second year I was the YAC representative who attended the City Council meetings. I was expected to speak up and express the youth perspective. The hot button issue at the time was complaints about the Speedway. I got handed a three-inch binder with all the testimony to study. It made me appreciate all the work councilors have to do. I wondered how they manage with their own jobs and families and still find the time to do all the work required to be a responsible council member.”

A YAC project organized during Campbell’s tenure was “The Battle of the Bands” held at BMD for a couple of years. “There was very little to do for young people at the time in Cottage Grove. That was before Delight and most music events were in bars where youth was excluded. So we came up with the idea of a music event oriented to teens. Sharon Jean, who was running BMD at the time, was a huge support and we went all over Lane County flyering CD stores and anywhere else we could. We got 17 bands to enter, a lot of them high school garage bands. Each Band got a 15-minute set and folks bought tokens to vote for their favorite. The top three vote getters were given a 45-minute set and we raised a good amount of money for youth causes. It was very popular with a couple hundred people attending and we did it for several years.”

Campbell, who serves as Director of the local Rural Organizing Project, credits her experiences on YAC with teaching her the community organizing skills that she uses today. She also met a number of community leaders who mentored her like Cindy Weeldryer who helped point her to resources and people at the County level.

Another YAC charter member is Cameron Reiten, now owner of KNND. At the time he had already been attending some Council meetings because he was working as an intern for the radio station. In looking back, Reiten was a bit envious of those who came afterward, for being in the first one they didn’t get to do some of the neat things later YAC groups did, like emergency preparation drills. What he remembers as most valuable from his experience, was learning about the different realms of city, county and state government. “It can be difficult to understand what each level of government can or can’t do. The Civics part of education seems to be missing in today’s schools, so like our ‘If I were Mayor contest,’ YAC really teaches its members how it all works. Folks need to realize with our Council/City Manager model of city government that the mayor can’t just wave a finger and make something happen. I believe it is very important to have YAC continue into the future and help prepare future leaders for our city.”

Emma Leigh Hernandez found her way to YAC as a 7th grader at Lincoln Middle School in 2012, and was a part of the group every year through her CGHS graduation. When asked about her experiences she enthusiastically responded, “I loved YAC! It was fun and very beneficial for me personally. I learned how our state government works and our local one too. And I especially liked how it made me feel being more a part of my community.”

There were a number of things that YAC did during Hernandez’s tenure. “One year we worked on bike trail safety. We gave out helmets and blinking lights to kids and that really felt good. Another issue we did a lot of work on was eliminating tobacco use by youth.”

During a visit to the Grove, Gov. Kate Brown had this to say about YAC’s efforts in raising the age for tobacco products to 21 and working to protect youth from getting hooked in the first place. “The Cottage Grove Youth Advisory Council has taken a leadership role in preventing young people from starting to smoke, and I just wanted to applaud their leadership and extraordinary engagement in the process.”

Hernandez wasn’t always so outgoing. “I was really shy when I started and being on YAC helped me get out of my shell. It helped me find my own voice and express that as new ideas and advocate for others.”

One such advocacy led by the Cottage Grove Youth Advisory Council had a reach far greater than the city limits. The group took a concern that was brought to them from a local mother and helped shepherd it through the Oregon Legislature into state law.

The mom’s son was injured in a car crash while under the influence of Nitrous Oxide (N2O). The small canisters of the gas were marketed for use in making whipped cream, commonly called by the tradename “Whip-It”s and sold readily over the counter at convenience stores by the case. “Unfortunately youth had discovered that by huffing the gas they could get a giddy ‘high’ and it was leading to problems. We approached our Oregon House Representative, Cederic Hayden, and he really helped us a lot in writing a bill and working it through the legislature. Some lawmakers were opposed at first so we testified and spoke with those members,” Hernandez reports.

According to City Manager Meyers, “The legislation was in the 2017 Session. After the YAC members learned how easily accessible the N2O canisters were at stores in Cottage Grove, they brought the concern up with Rep. Hayden. The YAC and Rep. Hayden discussed the issue and a bill was drafted – HB 3030. YAC members testified before the House Committee on Health Care and then with the support of Senator Prozanski, they testified before the Senate Committee on Judiciary. Besides Emma Meyers (Hernandez), YAC members Tori Raade, Jennifer McRenolyds, M.J. Raade, and Ian Dukes also testified ”

“The bill passed with flying colors, with all “aye” votes, the only thing preventing it from being unanimous was a few absences. The law made it illegal to sell N2O canisters to anyone under 18, unless they had a chef’s license. The whole experience really taught us how we can have an impact for the good of others,” Hernandez remembers.

Now a student at Brigham Young University, where she is pursuing a degree in 

Special Education, Hernandez was enthusiastic in recommending Cottage Grove youth to apply for the Youth Advisory Council. “Just the people skills it taught me alone has been very helpful. I was able to move to Utah and right away get involved in clubs and groups on campus as a Freshman. I also see how the skills that I learned about law, government and advocating for others are really going to allow me to better help my students. I really encourage students to apply for YAC.”

If you know a student who you feel would make a contribution to the community while doing a lot of personal growth in the process, please steer them toward applying for the Youth Advisory Council. Building better leaders locally since 2005!

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