Island Youth Ambassadors | Igor Studenkov

G.R. Clark Elementary School students spent their summer vacation passing out flyers, helping organize events, learning leadership skills and doing other community services around the Island neighborhood. 

They did it as part of the Youth Ambassador programs, one of the several initiatives the Island Civic Association organized with funding from the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities grant. 

The youth ambassadors got a sendoff at ICA’s Aug. 17 monthly community meeting, which is open to the public. They handed out food, helped sign members in and shared their experiences. All five ambassadors in attendance said they would join the program again if it was offered next year.

Because the Island is separated from the rest of Austin by Eisenhower Expressway in the north and several blocks worth of industrial businesses in the east, access to recreation and volunteer opportunities is a perennial issue. Until the Island Oasis was built in 2021, the neighborhood didn’t have a public space – and even then, it’s limited. 

“I read about all this stuff, and it’s somewhere else in Austin,” ICA vice-president Beverly Howard mused during the Aug. 17 meeting.  “I don’t always feel like getting into my car going over [Eisenhower Expressway].” 

Sonya Rich said that the youth ambassador program came out of a conversation she and the other ICA volunteers had in the winter of 2023. They talked about how flyers were an effective way to get information out to neighbors who are not already on their email list. They also talked about how local kids didn’t have much to do during the summer. Rich, who is a youth social worker, thought it was only natural to combine the two.

Youth ambassador Henry Ellis reflected that if it wasn’t for the program, he would have probably spent the summer laying around on the couch.

“I’m an introvert, so I think it is good to meet people,” he said. “I really just wanted to make the community a better place.”

Simone Merrick, another ambassador, said that she appreciated the coaching and meeting new people.

“ And I like the mural a lot,” she added. “I think it’s coming along. If we have [the youth ambassadors program] next year, I’d be doing it again, because I liked it a lot.”

ICA recruited six Island kids and spent about $4,000 from a Chicago Fund grant to pay them $20 an hour to serve as youth ambassadors. They worked about 10 hours a month.

The program began in June and wrapped up in mid-August. As part of the program, the kids took workshops where they learned skills such as public speaking and money management. They helped set up local events such as the July 22 Taco y Tamale Fest, and helped paint a mural on the Island Oasis stage area. 

At a recent meeting, ICA secretary Karla Lyons, who organized Taco y Tamale Fest, thanked the youth ambassadors. 

“They stuck to me like glue for the Taco and Tamale event,” she said. “Youth ambassadors continue to shine, working in the community.”

Lyons also told the ambassadors that as someone who “started out, when I was young, not as young as you, when I started working in the community in Austin, on the other side [of Eisenhower Expressway]” she was happy to see them get involved in the community.

ICA President Nate Tubbs said that during the summer, he made an effort to connect to more neighbors – and he was pleased to see youth ambassadors make connections as they passed out flyers. 

“Our youth ambassadors, we walked around passing out flyers three times,” he said. “Each time we did this, I really enjoyed walking around with you guys, because we got to talk, got to connect.  We introduced you to new people. It doesn’t seem that valuable, but it is.”

Tubbs also praised Rich for getting the program up and running, and said that he was glad that it gave local kids an opportunity to volunteer in their neighborhood. 

“The youth ambassadors could’ve done a program somewhere else, but we were able to do programs here,” he said. “This is what really matters.”

When asked, the youth ambassadors in attendance at the meeting said they would do it again. 

“Honestly, we’re going to miss you all, because I don’t know who’s going to pass out flyers next month,” Tubbs said.

“I’d do it if you keep paying me,” Merrick quipped back. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...