By Will Fairless
Associate Editor

The City of Opelika held the second installment of its town hall series last Thursday. The meeting was called “Improving relationships with our youth” and featured a panel of seven community leaders, who spoke about how they try to improve the lives of the youth in Opelika then took part in discussions with Opelika citizens.

“Our youth are really important to all of us, and we’re interested in what they’re thinking, what their concerns are and what their ideas are.” Mayor Gary Fuller said at the beginning of the event.

The panel comprised: Kevin Haefner, Pastor at Church of the Highlands; Jeremy Gray, Alabama State Representative; Richard Curry, with the Boys & Girls Club; Skip Long, Manager of the Youth Incarceration Prevention Program; Kenneth Burton, Assistant Superintendent with Opelika City Schools; Alfred White, sergeant with the Opelika Police Department; and Sikuria McCurdy, School Resource Officers with the Opelika Police Department.

The following are selected parts of what each panelist said when introducing himself or herself.

Haefner: “I have the privilege to lead our church of the highlands campus her in Opelika. What I get to be a part of is getting to watch our families grow up. We like to call them the next generation, and I feel like there’s such a need to add value not only to ourselves, but also to our youth. We do that through small groups, connecting with them, we have an app called a serve app, where we’ve got opportunities to serve our city. What I see us doing is just partnering with our youth. I believe everyone wants to be needed and known. I’ve got three little kids, and I want them to feel like they’re needed and known, by each other and God.”

Gray: “Along with my job as state representative, I am also the founder of the Curtis House. I’m able to leverage my seat and figure out where the resources are. I get things like the community service grant, and that’s kind of how I am able to contribute. When I started the vision of the Curtis House, I just wanted to help kids in my community. To see a kid is basically to see myself. I understand the environment and the barriers of living in an impoverished area. My job was to create 100 “me.” 100 people who have the opportunity to go to college, who have confidence to believe that whatever they put their minds to, they can do. I feel like in an impoverished area, where your environment is not conducive to success, that mental struggle, physical struggle, the lack of resources… The Curtis House acts as a hub to create productive people. I just want to create productive kids. They’re gonna stimulate the economy of Opelika, Alabama and the nation.”

Curry: “I have the pleasure and honor of serving as the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of greater Lee County. Our mission is clear: it’s to inspire and enable all young people, especially those that need us most, to realize their full potential as caring, productive, and responsible citizens. Headlines remind us every single day that our young people are in crisis. We want to make sure that when you walk out that door, regardless of your circumstance, those people ages 6-18 have academic success, healthy lifestyles, and good character and leadership. There’s five key elements to our positive youth development strategy. We want to make sure that all of the kids that walk in our doors and in our community that it’s a safe and positive environment, that it’s fun, that there are supportive relationships, that there’s opportunities and expectation, and that there’s recognition because everyone likes to be recognized. Feel free to reach out if you ever need us or if there’s ever anything that we can do for you.”

Long: “Part of my work is as the project manager for the Opelika Youth Incarceration Prevention Project. I need you to say these words, ‘Opelika is a city of hope.’ See, here’s the hope: as we engage with young people, there are three things that we do under this youth incarceration initiative. Part of it is that it’s very important for kids to be involved with their education; it’s very important for them to understand, and for us to understand, mental health; and the third is getting, as Jeremy said, these jobs skills, this training, that’s gonna help them be successful. The real goal is to cut the recidivism rate. The rate right now is about 57%. Our goal is, here in this city of hope, to get it down to 10%. The other part of what we do is really engaging with parents. As you hear about young people, my heart is around parents. How do you get the skills so that you do what you need to do so that these things happen in your home? Your kid is nurtured, given all the tools they need to be successful. Your kid is given a great education and given the skills so that when they get 18, they can get the heck up out your house. Part of what I spend my time, is as a communicator, a connector, a convener to help not only young people, but connecting with others that are engaged with the lives of these young people.”

Burton: “As a part of my primary responsibilities as assistant superintendent, I’m responsible for student safety. I’m responsible for our child nutrition program. I’m responsible for transportation. I’m responsible for our facilities. It’s important, in all of those areas, to make sure that our kids have the best facilities and receive the best education possible. We have a slogan for Opelika City Schools: “Every child, every day.” I’m gonna say it again: “Every child, every day.” How do we accomplish that? By providing highly qualified teachers and good facilities. We provide breakfast and lunch. We provide guidance. We try to meet the whole child. And I am proud to be a native, born and raised right here in Opelika, and I am able to give back in the position that I hold for Opelika City Schools.”

White: “What my division does is pertains mostly to juvenile crimes and crimes committed against juveniles. The kids, unfortunately, usually see me when these other programs fail. We aren’t just a lock-up-and-throw-away-the-key division, we work closely with juvenile probation, and we are lenient when we need to be lenient. Our ultimate goal is to, if there is a kid who is disorderly or unruly, then hopefully we can get them on a track while they’re still young, manageable and teachable, and correct that before they become adults. I think that’s what every police officer here at the Opelika Police Department would want when they are dealing with a juvenile, so that when they become adults, they can be productive citizens. If we didn’t have this particular division in the OPD, you’d see a lot more crime by adults and also by juveniles. While we are an enforcement division, we try our best that we can to prevent crimes. We are also a counseling division. We’ve had parents who say, ‘My son or daughter hasn’t necessarily committed a crime, but they’re misbehaving in school, they’re not doing classwork, they’re not doing what I want them to do, and could you just come talk to them?’ And we say sure. Sometimes it works, and sometimes we have to do several talks, but essentially, we’ll do whatever it takes and do the best that we can, to not just dismiss [a juvenile] as a delinquent, but to also provide them with a lecture if we need to or maybe even a little bit of punishment or tough love if we need to.”

McCurdy: “Basically, we are at the schools to have security and to let our youth know that we’re there to help them in any way we can. Social media and all the other things make police officers out to be bad people, but we are there to assure them that all police officers aren’t bad. We’re in the works of trying to offer a mentorship program. I tell people, ‘Do not let things dictate what you are going to be in the future.’ I started off in corrections, and from seeing the young kids come into the prisons, I said, ‘I want to get near and dear to the community,’ so I applied to the OPD, and I got an opportunity to work in the community I was raised in. What we try to do is reach the youth before they get to the point where they become incarcerated. We give them that tough love if needed and try to direct them in the right path.”

After the panelists introduced themselves, the public attendees split into groups of young and “young at heart,” aka adults. The panelists were also split up, and they engaged with these smaller groups directly. Then the entire assembly reconvened in its earlier form to talk about what had been said in the smaller groups.

In summarizing the conversation he had with the adults, Curry said that they thought it was important that a discussion like this be only the beginning of a much longer conversation in the future. “We have to be intentional in going to [the youth] to get their input. We have to be mindful of the name that we are putting on our young people and also give them opportunities to be able to just be kids and have fun,” he added.

Doing the same for the younger small group’s discussion, Gray said that the kids’ input was the other side of the same coin. “They wanted a platform to speak, they want to voice their opinion. They feel like they’re not heard,” he said. One of the ideas that they came up with was to have an event similar to the town hall, held at the high school, with the youth taking the lead and the adults staying silent.

Both the youth and the adults emphasized the latter’s need for safe spaces to do the things they want to do, to have fun. Specifically, places to play video games, sports and generally hang out away from homes.

The third installment of the city’s town hall series is Sept. 24 from 6-7 p.m. in the Municipal Court Building, and it is titled, “How we can better communicate and improve community relations.”