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Mayor's Youth Program connects Peoria teens to green community projects

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Jordan Mead
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The Mayor's Youth Program launched on Monday morning. Hundreds of Peoria teens will work for the Peoria Public Works Department throughout the summer, investing in green infrastructure projects.

Litter removal, mulching, weeding and planting might seem like just a way for high school students to make money over the summer, but it can also be more than that.

More than 300 Peoria Public School students will "beautify" the City of Peoria this summer through the Mayor's Youth Program, which focuses on caring for the city’s storm water infrastructure and green spaces.

The program launched Monday and will end on Friday, July 29. Peoria's Public Works Department will oversee all projects.

This year's program focus is green infrastructure. This means employed students will complete community projects like planting community gardens or directing storm water away from storm sewers.

Peoria director of Public Works Rick Powers said the city invests in stormwater utility cleanup following heavy rain and snow to remove the water. Also, the city has a consent decree, meaning projects towards improving green infrastructure will benefit Peoria by preventing excess combined sewer overflows, known as CSO discharges.

“The city is investing close to $120 million in abating pollution going into the Illinois river as a result of what we call compliant sewers, meaning sanitary sewers. It would be connected to toilets [and] things like that in your home, and then stormwater that comes off of our streets. We don’t want that directly discharging,” Powers said.

Powers said improving Peoria's green infrastructure starts with youth because today's youth is Peoria's future.

“We just want to be a part of their future and maybe a future employer. Every year when we do this, at the end of it, we see the fruit of their labor, but we see different people. We see them quiet coming in the door. We see them going out with a whole different understanding of who the city and public works is. We are really happy they’re here, and we’re proud to be a part of this with them and their futures,” Powers said.

Peoria Public Works spokesperson Nick McMillion helped coordinate the program between the Public Works Department and Peoria Public Schools to give students an entirely new summer experience.

"We just want to be a part of their future and maybe a future employer. Every year when we do this, at the end of it, we see the fruit of their labor, but we see different people. We see them quiet coming in the door. We see them going out with a whole different understanding of who the city and public works is. We are really happy they’re here, and we’re proud to be a part of this with them and their futures.”
Rick Powers, Director of Public Works for the City of Peoria

“They’re probably doing some things they’ve never done before. Some of these kids may have never held a rake or a shovel. So, it’s providing them with different tasks like that, and by doing these different projects around the city, they’ll start to take pride in the work that they do,” McMillion said. “It’ll come down to if they’re picking up litter, they’ll know maybe to not litter themselves or tell others to not litter.”

McMillion said the students will typically spend Monday through Thursday each week planting flower beds, cleaning up litter, pulling weeds and doing other green infrastructure-based projects. Then on Fridays, the students will complete various team activities, listen to guest speakers, and learn about different career and educational benefits offered throughout the area.

“In life, I think it’s really important to experience as many new things as you possibly can, and with a program like this, ultimately, they’re getting something that they might not ultimately get from sitting at a desk or working a type of job that maybe doesn’t allow them to go out and experience more hands-on things,” McMillion said.

McMillion said investing in green infrastructure is important when looking at the city’s overall growth, and green infrastructure includes investing in areas such as rain gardens and storm sewer rainwater runoff.

“Ultimately, it comes down to that it can provide a whole lot of benefits for the city to have these things in place such as erosion control, keeping pollutants from entering waterways. So, there’s a lot of important factors that come with green infrastructure that maybe not everyone is aware of right off the top of their heads,” McMillion said. “So, by doing these projects, they get a better understanding of why it’s so important to have things like a rain garden or having rain barrels or different things like that because it is very beneficial to a lot of different systems throughout the city.”

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Jordan Mead
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Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Kherat said during Monday morning's opening ceremony that the Mayor's Youth Program serves as an opportunity for high school students to explore their interests while serving the community.

Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Kherat said the students will learn the importance of problem solving and teamwork while also doing hands-on work projects outside of the classroom.

“It’s an opportunity for the kids to have a different experience, and more hands-on experience and where they are able to get meaningful work, great mentors. They’re able to sort of go on this journey where we’re helping them to also find a passion and an interest,” Kherat said.

Kherat said students who were previously in this program usually had better attendance, better grades and greater aspirations because the program gives them structure and keeps them busy while they earn money over the summer.

“These are our future leaders, and we want them to experience what the working world is all about. Reporting to work on time, problem solving, working with each other, learning new skills and of course the incentive of the wages,” Kherat said.

Kherat said many of the students in the program are undecided for what they will pursue post high school graduation, so the program serves as a chance for them to explore their interests while serving the community.

“When I was in high school, I always applied for summer jobs. Always wanted to sort of stay involved, stay engaged, earn some funds and also stay in a routine, stay on a schedule. Those are traits of young adults who are going to be very successful, so that’s a good thing, and that’s what that program provides,” Kherat said.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.