LEWISTON — Emma Williams, a junior at Lewiston High School, is already planning to live in Lewiston after graduating from college.
“Lewiston is my home,” she said after school last week.
That sentiment — with more young people optimistic about a future in their hometowns — might be growing.
Williams, who serves as chairwoman of the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council, said a recent effort by the group to survey students in multiple grades has shown some surprises.
While the full results will not be shared until later this spring, Williams and the rest of the volunteer council have heard positive things from high school seniors. Many said they would like to return to Lewiston after college, or even attend college nearby.
“It surprised us a lot because we didn’t really know what to expect,” she said, referring to some of the negative stigma about Lewiston that can still affect students.
Last week, the students were at McMahon Elementary. Next week, they will talk to students at Lewiston Middle School.
In contrast, Williams said many in group of fourth-graders told the council that they would get out of town as soon as they could.
“It’s funny how your perspective of Lewiston changes,” she said. “People like the community and how diverse it is. And how we come together as a group to support each other when we need to.”
Survey questions include, “What relationship do you think you will have with Lewiston once you finish high school?”
If respondents say they will probably leave Lewiston and not return, the survey asks, “What would make you want to stay or come back?”
The seven-member Youth Advisory Council was first established by the Lewiston City Council in 2001 and has since received local, state, and national recognition. According to the city, the mission of the LYAC is to empower youth community-wide, as well as allow youth to undertake service projects that enhance the community.
Much of the group’s recent efforts have focused on the city’s image.
There was a Lewiston trivia night with door prizes, and a “success stories” forum that highlighted people from Lewiston who have found success here. Mayor Shane Bouchard came up with the survey effort, but Williams said the Youth Council most often brainstorms its own initiatives.
“We want to show people that Lewiston is not a bad place,” she said.
Her favorite part of her experience so far, she said, is how much she’s learned about the community. She’s also become good friends with her fellow council members.
Dottie Perham-Whittier, Lewiston’s community relations coordinator and LYAC advisor, said “Emma is doing a great job as Chair of the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council, as she demonstrates positive leadership and a collaborative spirit. It’s also exciting to watch her grow as a young woman sharing her voice and ideas.”
The youth council also serves as a liaison between the youth of the community and the city, with Williams receiving a seat at the City Council.
Williams, 16, has been on the council since 2016, and she plans on staying on through her senior year. She said it has been eyeopening how local city government operates. When asked if she was at all interested in pursuing politics, she shook her head.
“I’m not much into politics,” she said. “But it’s good experience.”
She wants to attend the University of Maine at Farmington and became an elementary school teacher. Williams is currently a member of the National Honor Society and said she spends a lot of free time reading, and enjoys camping with her family.
At the same time the youth council is completing its survey of students, it is also facilitating a recycling contest with third graders in Lewiston.
Williams said the contest asks students to be creative with recycled materials — like build a statue or sculpture — and the winner gets an ice cream party with a visit from the mayor.
“It’s a good learning thing for them, as well as fun and creative,” she said.
The city announced this week that new Youth Council members are being sought for the 2018-19 year of service, which runs from July 2018 to July 2019.
Williams hopes they can continue their push to let people know Lewiston is a great place to live.
Applications for the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council can now be submitted online at www.lewistonmaine.gov/youthapply.
Applicants must be a grade 9-12 student at either Lewiston High School or St. Dominic Academy (or will be in the fall) or a Lewiston resident at the time of application. Lewiston homeschool students are also welcome to apply for membership.