On Task

teen task force

When Maren Dougherty talks about her involvement in a Teen Task Force, she is painfully honest. "I got involved because I live in a boring town," she says. Like many young people growing up in suburban America, Maren saw her peers wasting a lot of time. "When I was 13 or 14 years old, I went to the mall and the movies every weekend. On Friday nights, the courtyard of the mall would be packed with hundreds of kids with nothing better to do than hang out, smoke, and cause trouble."

When she got to high school Maren joined a Task Force designed to give teens in Langhorne, Pennsylvania the opportunity to give input on the way recreation space in their township gets used. This year Maren will be going off to college at Northwestern University, and she says she feels proud of all she has helped the task force accomplish. They've organized events and made real decisions, not the kind that make teens feel tokenized. At the local community park, for example, the Teen Task Force decided that it would be worth it to sacrifice one of the basketball courts for the sake of skateboard ramps. They push to come up with events that they think people will enjoy, or have never done before, things like laser tag and paintball. Or, she says, they'll take an old activity and make it new. Recently, they put together a bowling lock-in that ran from midnight to 6am.

"Kids know what they and their friends like to do," Maren reminds us. And even though adults may have concerns about how teens are spending their time, they are also finding that it makes the most sense to involve kids in working for a solution. In Langhorne, for instance, a number of youth are using and dealing drugs like pot, heroin and ecstasy. "A lot of kids start dealing in high school," Maren tells us. "The adults hope that our activities will provide teens with other outlets than drugs and provide safe, substance-free areas to chill."

Diane Marseglia, a supervisor of the Township where Maren lives, founded the Teen Task Force there in 1998 because she wanted to create a way for teens to be involved in the community. She says she believes that "the recommendations of the Teen Task Force are taken seriously by our board of Supervisors."

The Bensalem Township in Pennsylvania has also found success with a Teen Task Force. Dave Fiedler, a spokesman for the township's community relations department says that the mayor there "takes the task force's recommendations very seriously."

Fiedler said he believes that Bensalem is on the leading edge of this phenomenon on the East Coast. Teen Task Forces are also thriving on the West Coast in areas like Windsor and Orange County, California. While these groups are finding popularity, Marseglia believes that the next three to five years will be crucial in determining the growth potential and staying power of the Task Forces in Longhorn. As current members graduate and move out of the community, he says, the Task Force will only survive if it can continue engaging of the current youth population.

Even though adults may have concerns about how teens are spending their time, they are also finding that it makes the most sense to involve kids in working for a solution.

Maren's most memorable experience with the Task Force came last September, when they organized a "Battle of the Bands." "Our months and months of work resulted in a showcase of 14 local bands, headliner Michelle Branch, food vendors, a car show, and thousands of teens," she says. "It was amazing! "

But it doesn't always work out so well. "We've also had events that only 5 or 6 kids have shown up to," Maren tells us. When that happens it usually calls for some decision-making on the part of the Task Force. "We have to decide how much money teens are willing to spend and approximate how many kids will participate. Usually we try an activity a few times before deciding no one's into it."

But Maren is thinking positively about the likelihood that youth-lead decision making will continue in Langhorne. "As I go off to college, I know that I've helped to leave behind a legacy," she says. "I hope it continues." And Maren expects the coordinating and organizing she's done to come in very handy in the future.

"I think that these experiences of organizing and coordinating will prove useful," she says. "Even if they don't, I'm having a lot of fun anyway!

Twilight Greenaway contributed to this story.

Todd Tranausky, 17, is a junior at Conwell-Egan Catholic High School in Fairless Hills, PA.

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