Geneva Coalition for Youth celebrating 12 years
The button Mary Lu O'Halloran was wearing said it all: "Children First."
Her efforts these past 10-plus years with the Geneva Coalition for Youth have always been about Geneva's young people, she said.
Longtime Coalition leader Becky Furnish, who's also put in about a decade of work with the Coalition, agreed.
The two recently helped tie red ribbons throughout Geneva for the annual Red Ribbon Week to fight substance abuse.
Children of course still come first. But both Furnish and O'Halloran are phasing out of the organization to which they have given so much time and energy, passing the baton to a new generation of Geneva parents. The important work will go on, they will still help out, but others will lead.
The Geneva Coalition for Youth was born out of the former Geneva Parents Supporting Parents group of at least 20 years ago. The initial group somewhat disbanded as interest waned, but later parents and others saw a need to start up again.
With drinking rampant, and marijuana use growing, an idea formed that if parents throughout town networked and worked together, it would "help our kids maneuver the minefield of growing up," said O'Halloran.
Members began going to conferences and informational sessions, and learned that a coalition of all entities in a town could really positively impact the town's youth, she said.
"Parents are just wonderful. But we really needed a whole community coming on board -- fire, police, library, city council, park district, all the schools, social service agencies -- to talk about the well-being and safety of our young people."
Research showed a correlation between communities with an involved coalition and the reduction of risky behavior, she said. O'Halloran credited Chic Williams, former dean of students at Geneva High School and prevention/intervention coordinator, with spearheading creation of the group, later named the Geneva Coalition for Youth.
Through the years, all those entities have played a part in a better community for youth, Furnish and O'Halloran said. They ticked off numerous examples:
• Geneva Park District programs specifically designed for various youth age groups, including teen nights at Sunset Pool, and the Battle of the Bands. The local band winner a few years ago won the state competition.
• Geneva Public Library programs for all ages.
• The Geneva Police Department, which has partnered with the Coalition for several programs, including a forum on energy drinks.
• The city of Geneva, permitting a recent "Dancing in the Alley" music night.
• Geneva schools, which are, naturally, in the business of kids, and the huge support the schools give the Coalition.
All that support helps.
"We could do banners all over town," O'Halloran said. "If we didn't have the police, fire, chamber, park district library, schools, churches embracing this work and doing their part -- it would be a zippety big nothing."
The Coalition also surveyed students as to their behavior and feelings, both in the 1990s and again in the mid-2000s, to create a profile of Geneva youth.
"Kids felt adults in the community did not care," Furnish said of the initial report. "I really do think that's changing."
Businesses hire teens to work, and sponsor poetry readings, and music nights, for example.
"There are many ways the whole city has embraced the youth," she said, pointing to musicians entertaining patrons at Graham's 318, and at Infusion Tea Shoppe, both downtown.
And she and O'Halloran stressed that that's what's needed -- the whole community working together to help, as the group's mission statement says, "promote conditions that help our youth make healthy lifestyle choices."
They aren't "retiring" in the sense that they feel their work is done. It's not that they feel less passionately about making this a great place for kids. It's not even that they feel like it's someone else's turn to pick up the baton.
Rather, with older children -- neither has a child even in the teens and both have married children -- they feel that others have a better feel for what Geneva parents would find useful.
"The Coalition needs parents whose kids are in the midst of things now," said Furnish. "We need forums and presentations that meet their needs.
"Our concerns may not be the concerns of the younger parents of Geneva," Furnish said. "They're in the war zone now. They know what kids are struggling with, what's going on with them."
"We're passing the torch to them," O'Halloran said. "But we're still ready to help."
Coming on board are Irene Cornelson, Julie Pouilly, Erika Wackenhut and Angele Croiser-Byskosh.
"They're ready to go," said O'Halloran.
One topic that may come up soon: texting. Both women said -- and what exasperated parent would disagree? -- that the explosion of texting could mean a generation of young people who don't know how to communicate.
It's not about them, they insist. It always has been, and always will be, about the kids.
"It's us realizing what it's like to be a teenager in 2009 -- by listening to their hopes and dreams and their lives," O'Halloran said.