Get Involved! Miami’s Youth Advisory and Community Involvement Organizations

Sara Paredes, Feature Editor

Throughout Miami, various Youth Advisory Councils (YAC), boards and organizations serve as the voices of Miami-Dade County’s youth in government, community service and advocacy. With youth representing 20% of Miami-Dade County’s population, various local municipalities, organizations and other youth-centered groups have taken it upon themselves to prioritize the amplification of teen voices in government, service and everyday life. 

Miami Palmetto Senior High, nestled in the borders of the Village of Pinecrest, is home to 15 members of the Pinecrest YAC, with Vice Mayor Katie Abbott and Village Clerk Priscilla Torres as their sponsors. The Pinecrest YAC consists of students in eighth through 12 grade from all across the village, with representation from four other high schools: Ransom Everglades School, Gulliver Preparatory Academy, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy and Westminster Christian School.

“The Pinecrest Youth Advisory Council is made up of students from eighth grade to senior year and they are students that either live in Pinecrest or go to school in Pinecrest, and our main goal is trying to create a connection between the lawmakers of our community and the students,” Vice Chair of the Pinecrest YAC and MPSH sophomore Aayana Baid said. “I think it’s a great way to make a difference. And if you want to see change, if you have a topic that you’re passionate about and you notice that there is an issue in the community, [YAC] is a great way [to address it] because Pinecrest Vice Mayor is our sponsor and we work directly with her. That’s a perfect way to be able to make a change and actually do something about it.”

Aside from creating a connection between government and youth aspects of Pinecrest, YAC also prioritizes giving back to its community and the well-being of teens.

“As YAC, we try to really work with our community; we volunteer at a lot of events. We really try to talk about issues and topics that are going on and what we can do to solve them,” Baid said. “We also do Youth Series, which is getting a speaker to come and talk about a relevant topic in our society, and we invite all the youth to come hear about them.” 

Furthermore, various YACs around Florida have gained state-wide recognition in collaboration with the Florida League of Cities — an organization dedicated to aiding municipalities in government and the communities in which they preside.

“Florida League of Cities is an organization that helps municipalities govern and they have a youth section. The Pinecrest Youth Advisory Council has actually won awards because they have photo contests, they have video contests, so with Youth Series, we got this big trophy for our mental health initiatives,” Abbott said. “Not only do we do work here, we’re, you know, bigger. We’re recognized by Florida League of Cities.”

For Abbott, Pinecrest YAC’s impact on the community extends far beyond the council chambers, and she acknowledges the importance of recognizing youth voices in one’s community. 

“I think there are two benefits: now and in the future. Now, the goal is to help our community plan and program around our youth, figure out what the needs of the youth are. A third of Pinecrest is our youth, so they need to be taken into consideration when we’re talking about budgets and programs and everything,” Abbott said. “The other benefit, to me, is the future. We’re trying to develop leaders, people who may one day run for office or be a leader in whatever club or organization that they’re involved in.”

Beyond Pinecrest, the Village of Palmetto Bay’s Youth Community Involvement Task Force (YCITF) — established in 2015 — serves a similar purpose to most YACs, aiming to amplify youth participation in village activities and events. 

“We did a community survey not too long ago and one of the areas in the events category where the community said we were lacking was teen events,” Mayor of the Village of Palmetto Bay and YCITF Liaison Karyn Cunningham said. “That is something they are trying to focus on now, to create a couple of events that are just fun things for teens to do and gather at that are kind of focused on them.”

Similar to the Pinecrest YAC and others around Miami, many MPSH students sit on Palmetto Bay’s YCITF, with senior Valentina Nicolini being chair for the last two years, as well as serving on the Children’s Trust YAC South. For Nicolini, serving on the YCITF has allowed her to increase teen participation in her community and generate change.

“[The YCITF] is a board of students throughout high school from ninth to 12 grade. And basically, we look for ways that we can change or bring together youth to make a difference in the community. For example, we try to make those kinds of things in the community that will get the attention of teenagers and that wants them to make a change or wants them to be more involved in the community because Palmetto Bay is very family-based,” Nicolini said. “We’ve been looking for ways to involve teens, or even just making change, even with parents and families…”

Not only do Youth Involvement Boards and task forces promote community involvement and service, but they emphasize educating students on advocacy and providing youth with a platform to empower themselves through direct collaboration with elected officials and adults. 

“Sometimes [the boards] get overlooked because some people think, ‘oh, you know, maybe I don’t even get to make a difference,’ or ‘maybe my voice doesn’t feel like it matters.’ No. In this, it matters, because every single person is heard, every single person is listened to and everyone is understood. We try and take everybody’s ideas and kind of bring it into one to make sure that everybody is understood and make sure that everybody’s idea is taken into account because the whole point of this board is to bring together a community of youths, specifically in high school, to make a better impact on the community,” Nicolini said. 

In the future, both Pinecrest and Palmetto Bay hope to expand their organizations in terms of collaborating and running events involving YAC and YCITF.

“I think we could do a lot better job of bringing these Youth Advisory boards together, and be able to have bigger impact because we’re all going to learn from each other. I would really like to model part of what we do… after what Pinecrest has done,” Cunningham said. 

While most of Miami-Dade’s YACs are run through local municipalities, the Children’s Trust — the world’s only non-profit public interest law firm — oversees a YAC dedicated to promoting leadership development, community service and advocacy centered on children and families. 

In contrast to the Pinecrest YAC and Palmetto Bay YCITF, the Children’s Trust YACs are divided into six different branches to reach all of Miami-Dade County, with 120 YACers representing over 54 different schools across Miami-Dade County. These include: YAC Central (Coral Gables), YAC North (Miami Gardens), YAC South (Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay), YAC West (Doral and Sweetwater), YAC Kendall and YAC Far South (Homestead). Six MPSH students are currently involved in The Children’s Trust YAC, with Nicolini serving as president of YAC South. 

“In all of our meetings, we discuss different things that we can do to help the community; sometimes they focus on brainstorming, but sometimes they’re also learning experiences. I remember there was one month that was bringing attention to disabilities. So we learned about that, we did an immersive experience,” Nicolini said. “And then there’s also field trips that have to do with YAC and building up the community, and then we do one big project at the end of the year, you want to really focus on different locations, but focusing on helping your community. For example, last year, we built food forests for different schools, and then you present them at the end of the year, like a giant showcase.”

For MPSH sophomore Warren Miller, participating in YAC Central, despite this being his first year on the committee, has allowed him to make his opinions heard and provide feedback on issues in his community that directly affect him.

“My favorite thing so far was that we had a guest speaker this month, and they wanted to take our advice for building the underdeck in Overtown. I thought it was a great opportunity to be a part of the progression of my city and give them feedback on their plans that they’ve been developing for years. It’s an opportunity I don’t think I would have gotten if I didn’t join YAC, so I’m really thankful,” Miller said. 

MPSH sophomore Aiden Barreras has served on YAC West for two years, participating in community events and activities in collaboration with other branches. 

“All of the YACs, they come together every year and they do something called the ropes course, it’s a team building activity. We’re actually doing it on Nov. 5, so it’ll be really fun. It’s a team-building activity, so everyone can get to know each other and trust each other more. We have a lot of trips like that, a lot of field trips, a lot of group bonding activities,” Aiden Barreras said. 

Being involved with YAC and attending field trips has not only allowed members to gain a different perspective on certain aspects of their communities but has prompted many to discover their potential and possible career paths. 

“YAC has also helped me be exposed to all different kinds of things. One thing about the whole field trip down to the commissioner’s office, the whole experience actually enlightened me to want to study more politics, just from sitting in on one field trip that I missed a day of school, and I was like, ‘oh, it seems interesting,’ and little did I know that it changed what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” Nicolini said. “The other thing is that [YAC] also has helped me be exposed to different kinds of neighborhoods, because I went to this Overtown field trip as well, and overall, I think YAC has not only helped me build a community base or helped me make change in my community, but also has made a lot of change in myself because it has helped me in different immersive experiences.”

YAC not only prioritizes serving the community, but also encourages members to learn more about themselves and gain lifelong leadership skills.

“I joined last year, and I fell in love with it in a minute because I didn’t really have a lot of friends in YAC; right when I joined, I just started meeting more people, meeting adults in leadership positions in our local community. We would always go on trips to local restaurants, and diners and things like that. We would meet a ton of people in our community,” Aiden Barreras said. “My public speaking wasn’t the best when I first started. And now that I am able to talk to more people and be more open and social, [YAC’s] helped me on my public speaking part, and also, you get a ton of service hours.”

With Associate Director of Community Engagement Danielle Barreras overseeing the YACs, witnessing the motivated, ambitious members approach challenges and opportunities head-on is one of her favorite parts of working for the Children’s Trust. 

“[Seeing kids with a desire to advocate for themselves through YAC] is the highlight of my life. I’m going to be honest, it is what I feel like I was born to do, which is to inspire our young people. Our young people in our community already have intrinsic motivation. They already have a desire to do good by their community. They already have innovative ideas, but the issue is that our society sometimes looks at children and says no. They don’t vote, so they’re not worth a vote, ‘No, I don’t have to worry about those kids.’ Or, they don’t have any money. They’re not contributing to the economy, so I’m not going to worry about those kids. But I see the reverse of that. All these youth are going to one day be leading across the board. And to me, the highlight of my career is being able to work with young people and pull out and foster the natural abilities that they already have. This is only one of my many projects, but it is the one that I look forward to the most,” Danielle Barreras said.