Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 17, 2010

Guest Opinion: Businesses can help young persons build personal assets

by Dan Dykwel

Living in Palo Alto for more than 20 years, I have always been involved with youth through the schools, PTA and non-profit organizations.

Now, as chair of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce board of directors, I am involved with the "Developmental Assets" subgroup of Project Safety Net, our community-wide effort to respond better to the needs of young people.

In those roles I increasingly see the value of strengthening the relationship between youth and business, and the need to do so.

"Developmental assets are the positive relationships, opportunities, values and skills that young people need to grow up to be caring and responsible," according to Project Cornerstone, a community-based organization founded in Silicon Valley. The organization surveyed 14,000 4th- through 12-grade students in Santa Clara County in 2005 and found that only 18 percent of middle and high school students feel that the community values children and youth — a sharp drop from the 35 percent support reported by 4th- through 6th graders.

This survey, developed by the Search Institute, will be administered in our schools the first week of October, and is well worth the parental permission it requires in order to derive meaningful results. It will give us an indicator of how well we as a community support the healthy development of our children, or at least how that support is perceived.

A new national study of 15-year-olds by the Search Institute, through the Teen Voice 2010 program, found a persistent gap between what teens need and what we as adults offer them.

The findings showed that three key strengths make a significant difference in teens' lives: (1) supporting their passions and interests; (2) developing their confidence, skills and opportunities to influence things that matter to them; and (3) encouraging positive relationships that teens need to support their growth and well-being.

Last April at the Palo Alto Youth Forum at Mitchell Park, organized by the city's Youth Council, I participated in the group session on relationships with local businesses.

The students chose this area as one they wanted to include in a series of discussions that they hoped would lead to concrete action plans. Their ideas included bringing food from local vendors onto to the Gunn campus; student nights at local businesses; and youth activities at Lytton Plaza where they can perform, socialize and just relax.

One of their goals was to identify youth-friendly businesses that would offer youth products and discounts, entertainment and later hours.

They want positive relationships with businesses. An issue that kept surfacing during the discussions was the desire to be treated with respect and friendliness when they patronize a local business. These young people were very much aware that not all their peers exhibit ideal behaviors when visiting stores. But then neither do adults. What they want is to be recognized as valuable paying customers deserving the same level of service as the adult in the business suit or the parent shopping for groceries.

They want to be heard and feel that their voices matter.

The Youth Council members were very interested in collaborating with the Chamber of Commerce to achieve their objectives and the chamber made a commitment to explore ways businesses could interact more meaningfully with youth.

Businesses have supported young people in many ways for decades in this country. Think of all the T-shirts, jerseys, caps and trophies that have been provided to youth sports teams by local business sponsors. And think of the support from many companies that allow their employees to leave work early to coach local youth teams. These adult-to-youth relationships are the really meaningful ones that kids remember throughout their lives, and sometimes the coaches are the trusted people they turn to for guidance.

The Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce does a "shadow day" each year that pairs about 30 students with businesses for a day. The youths experience the work environment and learn about the many aspects that are involved in making a product or delivering a service. These businesses range from local restaurants to microprocessor manufacturers.

The Los Gatos Youth Commission created a program to recognize businesses that serve and support youth. The "Youth Friendly Business" program honors local businesses that are seen as youth friendly by, among other things, providing excellent customer service for youth, funding events, hiring, and accepting young volunteers. It shows how importantly they feel about businesses as a component of their growth experience and their daily lives. The value to the youth and community is that these relationships build important developmental assets.

The Palo Alto chamber participates through Nova, a non-profit federally funded employment and training agency, to provide work experience for high school and college students. We had a high school student this summer and currently we have a student from San Jose State University working on a specific project. We hope to expand this program to generate more internships by working with our local high schools and businesses.

The Palo Alto chamber endorses the Developmental Assets initiative being launched in our community this fall. We will provide our member businesses, or any business, tools they can use to participate in the way that best suits their business needs and capabilities.

We will offer encouragement and help connect them to youth in ways that will be meaningful for both.

And we will actively engage the Palo Alto Youth Council, listen to their concerns and suggestions, and work with them to establish meaningful connections.

Most importantly, we must help forge personal relationships with young people so that they develop a stronger sense of self worth and become better individuals who are armed with the traits to cope with the challenges of adulthood and to thrive as members of our community. It's good for youth — it's good for business — it's good for our community.

Dan Dykwel is a marketing-communications consultant and a Realtor in Palo Alto. He currently serves on the boards of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the Media Center and is immediate past president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs. He can be emailed at ddykwel@kwrpa.com.

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