FREEHOLD — For young people in Freehold Borough who are interested in getting a taste of what it is like to work in government, an opportunity awaits.
The Freehold Borough Youth Government Council, established in 2012, offers students in seventh through 12th grade a chance to learn about all levels of government and to participate at the local level.
The newest Youth Government Council members were introduced at the Nov. 16 meeting of the Borough Council.
Councilman Jaye Sims, who proposed the Youth Government Council, said the teenagers who participate “learn public speaking, how to get their point across, and articulate. They bring solutions to problems and bond with each other through teamwork.”
Fifteen students are currently part of the council and each young adult holds a position/ title that corresponds with a real municipal position, such as mayor, borough administrator, borough attorney and police chief.
“Each student meets with the leadership equivalent position and gets to learn the ins and outs of that position,” Sims said.
T.J. Ray, 17, a junior at Freehold High School, serves as the police chief on the Youth Government Council. He said he joined the group because he is “interested in the government and wanted to learn more about it.”
“I think I would like to work in government in the future because I like to help out my community and being part of the government would make it easier for me to help and fix my community,” he said.
Students are required to maintain a grade point average of 2.5 to participate in the Youth Government Council. Regular attendance at monthly meetings is required.
The Youth Government Council’s first project, which is still in progress, is to make improvements to Veterans Park, Schanck Street.
“We found interest from all of the members of the Youth Government Council that there was a need for recreation. There were not enough activities in the community,” Sims said.
The Borough Council pursued a Monmouth County open space grant and received $135,000 in 2013. The total cost of the Veterans Park improvements was estimated at $270,000, according to Sims. With the borough matching the county funds, the balance of the cost was met. However, the project is not yet underway.
“The biggest obstacle has been obtaining certain New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection approvals,” Sims said.
Phase one, an assessment of the park, and phase two, the design of a wetlands plan, have been accomplished, Sims said.
“We are hoping for shovels in the ground in 2016,” he said.
Kayla Ciok, 17, a senior at Biotechnology High School, Freehold Township, said she has gained insight into government “through the beginning of the remodeling of Veterans Park and countless community service projects.”
“I joined the Youth Government Council because I wanted to help make a difference in my hometown. I grew up in Freehold and have always been very active in the community, so I wanted to seize this wonderful opportunity to be involved,” Kayla said.
She said Sims has been “amazing in teaching us about the workings of both the local and federal governments.”
Although the young woman said she does not have plans to work in government in the future, her experience with the council has given her “a better understanding of the government and the inner workings of a community.”
Sims, who grew up in the borough, has served as a councilman since 2006. He said his “fascination with government” began when he was a child.
“I liked to watch debates when I was 8, 9 and 10 years old,” he said.
Sims said when he was young, there were recreation programs and student councils in school, but not anything to engage youths.
So, in 2012, when he read an article about a youth council in another New Jersey town, he inquired.
“I pitched the idea to the Borough Council and worked with Kerry Higgins (borough attorney) to draft an ordinance,” he said.
Each student brings something different to the Youth Government Council, and they all “walk away with something,” according to Sims.
“In today’s society there is a disconnect between kids and adults with current events. I engage the kids in current events,” the councilman said.
In addition to attending Borough Council meetings and Monmouth County freeholder meetings, the members of the Youth Government Council have visited the White House and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The group is planning a spring trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Sims credits the parents of the members of the Youth Government Council with “doing such a good job raising their kids.”
He has written letters of recommendation for members who are applying to college and for those who are seeking induction in national honor societies.
Sims said he teaches the Youth Government Council members to be informed and to educate themselves, particularly with voting and elections.
“Maybe they will come back and lead in Freehold Borough,” the councilman said.
— Contact Christine Barcia at email@example.com