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Suicide prevention and financial literacy tops the list for Okaloosa Leadership students

When Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder was elected to office, one thing he knew he wanted to establish was a youth leadership council of some kind. Ponder approached Superintendent Marcus […]

Youth Leadership Council meets at the Shalimar Admin building (Okaloosa Public Information Office)

When Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder was elected to office, one thing he knew he wanted to establish was a youth leadership council of some kind. Ponder approached Superintendent Marcus Chambers with the idea, and it just so happened that the school district was looking to do something similar.

A partnership was formed, and what was birthed from that is a youth council that includes a Junior and Senior from each leadership area within each high school in the county.

In the late Spring of 2021, the council had their first meeting that would introduce the vision for this group. They would be tasked with coming up with ideas of things they would love to see change within the county, or introduced. Likewise, they would come up with ideas they can introduce to the Okaloosa County School District.

After Summer break, the council met and began listing out the ideas.

“We have 10 or 11 ideas for the school district that were proposed, and I believe 7 or 8 within the county,” said Commissioner Ponder. 

“We’ve got this up-and-coming generation and they’re spectacular in their own way,” continued Ponder. “We’d love to get ideas, thoughts, and concepts they feel could enhance or make better what we’re currently offering.”

Two of the Youth Council’s ideas could be coming before the Okaloosa County School Board shortly. According to Superintendent Chambers, these two ideas are centered around suicide prevention and financial literacy.

Chambers told the school board at a workshop last week that the council would like to see the Hope Squad implemented at all of the schools in Okaloosa County. 

The Hope Squad program is a school-based peer support team that partners with local mental health agencies.

  • Peers select students who are trustworthy and caring individuals to join the Hope Squad.
  • Squad members are trained to watch for at-risk students, provide friendship, identify suicide warning signs, and seek help from adults. 

Hope Squad members strive to create a safe school environment, promote kindness and connectedness, support anti-bullying, encourage mental wellness, reduce mental health stigma, and prevent substance misuse, according to the OCSD.

As for financial literacy, this is currently offered at two high schools in the county but the council is expressing the desire to see it offered at all high schools. Chambers said that he and his staff would be talking with high school principals about adding a financial literacy-type class.

“I think those are just great skills that students can utilize as they go forward, especially upon graduation,” said Chambers. “There were a number of other items about schools but those were two that were at the top of their list that I thought were very mature to come from students.”

Aside from regular meeting business, Ponder says that he brings in leaders from Okaloosa County to talk to the students each month. So far, the students have heard from:

  • Marcus Chambers, Superintendent of Schools
  • John Hofstad, County Administrator
  • Nathan Sparks, One Okaloosa EDC

“I’ve been very inspired by the leadership that’s part of this council,” said Ponder. “One of the things I’ve been trying to do at each meeting is team building, and really open their eyes to students and issues from other schools.”

Ponder says that it’s this thought process that as they work together and get to know each other, that they can begin to build a more cohesive family here in Okaloosa County. 

Youth Leadership Council meets at the Shalimar Admin building (Okaloosa Public Information Office)

Even with a list of great ideas, Ponder knows that practicality has to come into play, and he, along with Superintendent Chambers and Assistant Superintendent Steve Horton, are working with the students to help facilitate these ideas.

“I’ll tell the students that these are fantastic ideas but challenge them to think about the practicality of them coming to pass,” explained Ponder. “Additionally, if there’s a financial piece to them, what’s the probability that it happens?”

Ponder told Get The Coast that it’s this guidance that is helping the students learn more about the process of getting a new idea implemented in the school system or even the county, and is getting them prepared for February. 

“I’ve challenged our Chair and Vice-Chair to come before the Okaloosa School Board and the Board of County Commissioners and present their ideas in February,” said Ponder. “They will have to give their reasons why these ideas are good and be prepared to take questions.”

In the meantime, the Youth Council will continue to drill down on their current list of ideas using “practicality and probability” as their guide. 

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