By Nellie Ellis

Over the past few years, youth across the commonwealth have had leadership roles in many of Kentucky Youth Advocates’ biggest initiatives. The youth have been some of the most influential voices for Kentucky’s kids and families and have been extraordinary advocates for themselves and others.  I am proudly one of these voices.

However, as we started to face the unprecedented circumstances of a pandemic, many of these young leaders like myself found ourselves lost.  We still had a strong desire to lead – but serving others seemed impossible when the population was practicing physical and social distancing.

Meanwhile, KYA had been working to identify and study any potential obstacles that Kentucky kids and families could be facing as a result of the pandemic.

As KYA looked deeper into the issues, and spoke to some of their key youth voices, they realized the need to utilize our perspective and leverage our desire to contribute from our own homes.

So on Friday, April 24, I and my KYA mentors held our first meeting of what we collectively call “Ky Youth L.E.A.D.” (Learning, Leading, Engaging, Activating and ADvocating): an attempt to mobilize young leaders across the commonwealth to identify and address issues relating to kids and families in their communities resulting from COVID-19.

Thirteen youth from 9 different counties have identified themselves as “LEAD Navigators.” Each LEAD Navigator has recruited their own hometown “LEAD Team” of their peers.

LEAD allows us Navigators to have flexibility with how we engage with our peers. We can choose to interact via Zoom, Google hangouts, social media platforms, etc. This enables us Navigators to participate in the initiative without becoming overwhelmed in our already stressful environment.

During our first few meetings, each group identified an obstacle or issue within their community. Each LEAD Team is developing their own action plans to address the issue in the weeks to come. So far, ideas have involved anything from ensuring that food insecure populations have meals during upcoming months, to hosting Zoom calls that provide tutoring for students who identify as needing extra supports in mitigating a deep summer slide, or mentorship for children with special needs. Our KYA LEAD mentors ensure that each issue addressed is one that their group has assessed within their area and feel passionately about.

This is truly a youth-led initiative. KYA mentorship and facilitation of Navigators’ efforts is through email and weekly check-in meetings to discuss progress, encourage collaboration of ideas among the Navigators, and training in specific skills or sharing of different ways to document their work as real-time historians, including creating artifacts that will be looked at in the future to learn from these unprecedented historical experiences.

The first few weeks have shown tremendous promise and many groups are excited about the work ahead! Stay tuned!

Nellie Ellis is a graduating high school senior from Whitley County and the lead Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children youth ambassador.

Check out this video from Chloe Gibson, LEAD Navigator from Berea, whose LEAD team, “Friends Helping Families” (FHF), has created a video to encourage the community to stay healthy at home.