PA Youth Advocacy Network Launches Third Annual Series

Mental wellness and trauma specialist Dr. Dana Milakovic discussed with youth advocates how important their voice is in shaping priorities and policy.

Jewish Healthcare Foundation's PA Youth Advocacy Network kicked off its third annual advocacy series for high school teens on January 31. Twenty-seven students from 22 schools and 8 counties across the Commonwealth are participating in the eight-week virtual series focusing on advocacy skills development.

Session topics include coalition building, crafting a compelling personal story, using data for advocacy, and policy change. Participants work in teams throughout the series to share youth perspectives around the PA Youth Advocacy Network's youth-led Advocacy platform to strengthen teen mental health systems and supports. Areas of focus include excused mental health days, increasing access to school counseling resources, mental health curriculum in schools, substance use prevention, everyday activism, and raising awareness.

Seven youth leaders, including alumni from the series, are participating as youth facilitators, sharing their advocacy experiences and working with each of their teams to develop a plan for gathering and sharing youth perspectives. In addition to helping with facilitating the sessions, teen facilitators presented strategies and tips for getting started in advocacy. Ja'Nya Coleman, a PA Cyber School student and WQED Film Academy graduate, and Connor Dalgaard, a sophomore at Vassar College and network alum, presented about communications and the use of creative media. Rikki Shukla shared her experience as a researcher at the US Department of State using data for advocacy.

"I participated in the Advocacy Series back in 2023. I learned so much, and it helped me get started in my advocacy work," said Ja'Nya Coleman. "I'm now a youth facilitator for the Advocacy Series, and it's rewarding to be able to help students, teach them about advocacy, and help them grow as future advocates."

"Facilitating the advocacy series has been an eye-opening experience, revealing a growing desire in Pennsylvania youth to make a positive change in mental health understanding. It's also helped me to become more comfortable leading conversations and speaking in front of people," said Tyler Nolt, an alumnus of the series. "I'm extremely proud of the impact I've been able to make throughout the state as well as in myself."

In February, participants created and compared community maps to identify mental health resources in their schools and communities. They also learned about the importance of self-care in advocacy, particularly when advocating around mental health, and developed their self-care plans. They explored various types of media and data and discussed how each could be used for advocacy around mental health.

Dr. Dana Milakovic, PsyD, NCSP, Mental Wellness, and Trauma Specialist – Office for Safe Schools, PA Department of Education, shared the importance of youth voice in shaping government priorities.

The series continues until Wednesday, March 20th, when participants will present their perspectives and ideas for improving teen mental health support in schools and communities. 

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