You may be surprised to learn that, according to 2010 Census data, there are now as many residents in Oro Valley under the age of 18 as there are over the age of 65. No longer just a retirement community, Oro Valley is now taking a look at its new profile and asking an important question: Are we meeting the needs of all residents?

For quite some time, the young people of Oro Valley have been the most underserved segment of our population, but we’re working very hard to change that.

Back in 2003, when I founded Project Graduation at Ironwood Ridge and collaborated with volunteers from Canyon Del Oro, my goal was to ensure our high school seniors had a safe and sober graduation event. I’m proud that this annual, community-sponsored event has served more than 8,000 Oro Valley graduates in the past ten years and has grown to become a model for high schools across Southern Arizona. But we must do more.

Young people are the future of our community. That is a concept we all understand. But the more I work with students and understand their needs and their vision for life in Oro Valley, the better I understand that they aren’t just our future—they are our present. They are full of energy and ideas on how to bridge generational gaps and build relationships. They seek to bring down the walls within their own peer groups and build friendships, regardless of which school they attend. They feel a deep sense of civic responsibility and want to make a difference now, not just in the future. And the more I learn about our young people, the greater responsibility I feel to harness their energy and ideas, get them engaged in municipal government, and shine a spotlight on their achievements.

That is why, in 2011, I began visiting fourth-grade classrooms and introducing elementary-aged students to the concept of local government. The presentations have been an overwhelming success and have helped our youngest residents make a personal connection to their elected officials. They have great ideas, too.

Then in 2012, after realizing the town needed to actively engage high school students in municipal government, I spearheaded the formation of the first-ever Oro Valley Youth Advisory Council. The group comprises 10th- through 12th-grade students from BASIS Oro Valley, Canyon Del Oro High School, Ironwood Ridge High School and Pusch Ridge Christian Academy. These students represent the interests and needs of their peer group and provide resources for future planning through practical, hands-on experience in municipal government.

I am also pleased to announce that through a unique partnership with Amphitheater Schools, the Town of Oro Valley will be enhancing its Spotlight on Youth segment, which features the noteworthy accomplishments of a student or student group at council meetings. We will continue featuring students from Oro Valley’s private and charter schools as well.

My ongoing desire to create a more meaningful way to recognize students led to the restructuring of this program. Now, we’ll formally invite students and their families to be publicly recognized at a council meeting where they’ll be presented with a certificate and photographed for a website feature. Additionally, our friends at The Explorer Newspaper are also teaming up to profile these outstanding students. 

While Oro Valley is still known for its first-rate retirement communities, we’re also building a reputation for first-rate young people who have ambition and vision for our future. That’s one of the reasons Bloomberg Newsweek named Oro Valley the Best Place to Raise Kids in Arizona for 2013. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about engaging and recognizing our youth. 

In Oro Valley, we’re proud of our young people, and we want them to know it. 

(Editor’s Note: Mary Snider is a member of the Oro Valley Town Council.)

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