Each year, representatives from Oregon counties gather at the annual conference of County Commissions on Children and Families.
These local representatives discuss how state funds distributed to their counties are being put to use to improve lives on the local level.
But this year there was something new at that annual conference. Something youthful. Someone Â— two someones Â— from Union County.
The representatives from Union County were the local commission's chairwoman and vice chairwoman, Lauren Potter and Larissa Sieders. Potter is a senior at La Grande High School. Sieders is a junior and is in line to be the commission chairwoman next year."We were the only youth (CC&F representatives) there, and maybe the only youth chairperson and vice chairperson in the whole state," Potter says.Potter and Sieders work with a commission composed locally of 15 to 20 people. They meet monthly with the local commission's support staff, Vicky Brogoitti, to set the commission's monthly meeting agenda, and then lead the monthly meetings of the whole commission board.
And that can be difficult when the rest of the commission is at least as old as your parents.
"Sometimes, it's hard to get a word in. We have to speak out and we have to be aggressive about it sometimes," Potter confesses.Sieders laughs at Potter, who is normally a very soft-spoken teenager. "We joke about bringing a cowbell along to the meetings, or at least a gravel," Potter grins.
At the March meeting this week, Potter brought herself to knock on a table to bring order to some discussions. "You did?" Sieders checks. "And the conversation can change so quickly sometimes," Sieders adds. "I want to hold up my hand and say, Â‘About that topic we were talking aboutÂ….'"
Both girls were approached by commission member Pam Dodds, who heads the high school's career center.
"Pam mentioned CCF to me," says Potter, who is also president of the school's National Honor Society and FBLA chapter, as well as a participant in Teen Court, the LINK group and the art club. "It was a different opportunity to me, and she said the commission didn't have any youth representatives."
Potter joined the commission in August, officially appointed by the Union County commissioners, and then was nominated by Dodds to be the group's chairwoman in December for 2005.
Sieders joined the commission in September, again at Dodds' urging. But Sieders at least was familiar with the commission, having colored her way through meetings years ago when her family and older sister served on the commission.
"She didn't have to try very hard" to get us to join, Potter says of Dodds. "I wanted to get more involved with the community."
Sieders remembers being in history class one day after school started when a note was delivered to her asking her to drop in to see Dodds.
"I was looking for something to do, and this will look good on my college applications," she said.
Neither teenager is looking at a career in social services, though. Potter wants to study architecture, and Sieders, a high school soccer athlete and middle school girls soccer coach, plans to study physical therapy. She's already working on an internship at Mountain Valley Therapy.
"I didn't know what to expect," Potter says of her work with the Commission on Children and Families. "I've been pleasantly surprised."
It's hard work, Potter adds, but good work.
And there are surprises. When Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, worked with the commission to sponsor a Feb. 5 community education session on methamphetamine in La Grande, he stopped to say he'd like to meet with Potter and Sieders about youth issues.
Sieders and Potter have been meeting with Brogoitti to organize and refine the message they want to deliver to Smith, probably sometime in the next month or so.
The commission work for the two has brought some surprises, too.
"They really want our input," Potter said with a bit of wonder.
Both are excited about working on the commission's organization of a calendar for April's Child Abuse Prevention Campaign, and representing the commission at events such as Celebrate La Grande and Arts for All.
There are, however, drawbacks.
It's looking like the day they may be meeting with Rep. Smith is also Prom Day at La Grande High School Â— and possibly also the day of Arts for All.
Sieders jokes about showing up for the meeting with Smith with her long blonde hair all done-up for prom Â— and also trying to fit working with children at Arts for All in between classes, the meeting and prom.
Both girls agree that having teenagers on the commission is good. For a county commission designed to advise commissioners on how to use money to help children and families, not having people close to childhood, Potter says, was "a big weakness."
The commission "is supposed to look at teens with problems," Sieders says, but she is equally worried about prevention problems, ways for younger children and teenagers not to get involved in all the negative stuff.
"There's pressure from classmates and others," she said, explaining how a sophomore recently expressed concern to her about getting through high school unscathed by all the temptations. "It's really hard."
By their very example, though, Potter and Sieders are hoping to show other teenagers that there are ways to have a voice in the community, a voice in making a difference.