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Joe Landry-McWilliams, 17, is shown here during a recent Guilford Youth & Family Services Youth Board meeting, where members discussed plans for the 18th annual Teen Gift Drive, which takes place Sunday, Dec. 15 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. outside Guilford Walmart. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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What’s the best way to connect with youth? Give them a chance to get involved. That’s what encouraged Joe Landry-McWilliams to sign on to the Guilford Youth & Family Services (GYFS) Youth Board six years ago. Now, at the ripe old age of 17—and in his third and final year as student chair—Joe’s doing everything he can to help the board build excitement for some special youth programs being offered in the community.
First up is the GYFS Youth Board’s 18th annual Teen Gift Drive, which takes place this Sunday, Dec. 15, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. outside Walmart, 900 Boston Post Road, Guilford. The current roster of eight board members—all teens from Adams Middle School and Guilford High School (GHS)—generated their own press release about the event and will be staffing the gift collection table throughout the day. Joe says the board embraces the drive because it was developed by teens, for teens.
“Usually Toys for Tots is a very common thing during the holiday, but we posed the question, ‘What about the teens?’” says Joe. “They don’t have as much during the holiday season. It seems like they’re forgotten, to some extent, because they’re older kids. But who’s to say they can’t enjoy the holiday as well? So we thought it was a really important responsibility to take the time and think out this event. And it’s been going strong for so many years now.”
To make it easy for anyone to find a gift teens would appreciate, the board has included a handy list of suggestions on flyers distributed around town. Gift ideas include sports equipment such as a soccer ball or basketball, movie passes, gift cards, board games, plush blankets, art supplies, bath sets, and makeup. Cash is also welcome, and will be used by the board members to shop for their peers to add to the holiday giving.
“You can also stop by our table if you need ideas,” Joe says.
All of the gifts gathered by the Teen Gift Drive are distributed by staff to clients and families served by GYFS. Founded in 1977, GYFS is a town-based agency providing support services to youth and their families, backed by a professional staff. The agency also works collaboratively with parents, guardians, police, schools, and community members. Primary funding is received from the Town of Guilford and Connecticut Department of Education, with additional support generated from local, regional, and state grants.
Guiding the Board
GYFS Prevention Specialist Mike Kosko facilitates the Youth Board and guides its service as a leadership group. He also expects plenty of input from its youth members, says Joe.
“Every meeting is organized by Mike Kosko, and he has a plan for what we go over and will provide us with some ideas. But it’s always a very open forum and we’re encouraged to come up with ideas,” says Joe. “And if there’s something we don’t feel is interesting to us, or it wouldn’t be worth it to pursue, it’s totally fine to argue about it and civilly criticize and change our plans so we’ll come out with something we all feel will benefit the community in the best way possible.”
For Kosko, having a board with young people like Joe involved is a valuable resource for GYFS and the community.
“There’s importance to having the youth actually lead the discussion,” says Kosko. “We were all youths at some point, but we don’t have the point of view that they have currently in society. So it’s really important to have that aspect, and also to have the youth speaking to their peers on those issues.”
Youth Board members also help out by assisting the agency, and affiliated programs, such as its Developmental Assets for Youth (DAY) initiative. DAY helps assess and evaluate the community’s need for support from programming; works to provide resources to prevent and combat issues caused by alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use; and address any rising issues affecting Guilford’s children and families.
“Based off any survey data that we get, we try to tailor our programs to what the need is that we see from a statistical side,” explained Kosko. “But the youth [board] really help us to focus on what will work and how it will be perceived by them. It’s really that perception that helps.”
“A lot of it is what kids are encountering as middle schoolers going to the high school—drug prevention is a big part of it,” Joe adds. “We also do organize some events for younger people, like the [Halloween] Spooktacular on the Green, [which] benefits our younger community. It’s a safe environment for them to go around trick or treating because there’s no cars allowed and the streets are blocked off. Everyone’s there having a great time putting on this event, for free, for all these families.”
Getting Involved Through GYFS
Because his two older brothers had been involved as members of the Youth Board before him, Joe was eager to sign up as soon as he could. He joined the board while he was still a student at Baldwin Middle School.
“I was in 5th or 6th grade and both of my siblings had also been on the youth board, so I was the next in line. I was like, ‘I can’t wait to go to youth board, it sounds like a great time.’ They made it sound like so much fun,” says Joe. “And I was excited, as a younger kid, to join the ranks of the older kids and do some community service.”
In fact, Joe has even earlier ties to GYFS—he first joined its family theater program nine years ago, and now serves as its lead student tech.
“I had known about the GYFS productions for many years—I actually was in one when I was in 4th grade, so I had been previously introduced the process of it all as an elementary student,” says Joe.
While he enjoyed being a part of the cast in that production, Joe recalls thinking some time later, “‘Well, maybe this acting thing really isn’t my thing, but I do like the technical aspect behind it, and I see all these older kids working and they seem really cool and they’re getting a lot of skills I wish I had, like building stuff.’” he says. “I love to learn how to build stuff. So 6th grade was my first year [assisting tech]. I got that hands-on experience, and I just stuck with it, because I was having such a great time doing it, and I was learning so much. You just really learn what goes on within a production.”
GYFS Family Theatre is putting out the call right now for kids in grades 5 to 8 to register to audition for its next production, Alice in Wonderland Jr. The production will be directed by Kosko, with Music Director Aron Smith. Auditions, which are free, will be held on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Greene Community Center (registration required, call 203-453-8047 to schedule an audition time). Performances will be held at the GHS Performing Arts Center on May 2 and 3, 2020.
Joe says getting involved in GYFS Family Theatre productions provides an exceptional experience and a unique opportunity for young people interested in theater.
“This is presenting an opportunity for kids in that age group to get involved,” says Joe. “With our program, we really want to give them the best experience possible and kind of emulate what it’s like to be in a big theater production.”
As one of the student leaders working on the production crew, Joe says its important to be friendly, welcoming, and accessible.
“We definitely are the older members. We are working with 8th graders and younger, so we try to make it a comfortable experience and work with the kids, not around them,” he says.
Staying Committed to Community Service
On top his GYFS involvement, Joe is conducting a very busy senior year at GHS, including his time spent practicing and performing as a trumpet player in the GHS Jazz, Wind, and Symphony Orchestra groups.
After he graduates with the GHS Class of 2020, Joe plans to attend college, possibly with some studies in the social services vein. He’s already certain he will also find a way to continue contributing to community programs as a volunteer in the future.
“I know that social services and community service will be a part of my life forever,” says Joe. “Especially volunteering. That’s beyond your degree and what you want to do; it’s just being a good citizen. And I feel like, if I’ve learned what to do starting at such a young age—experiencing real community service, and experiencing how easily it can be to give back to your community—it really will benefit me in the future. And I will continue to do stuff like this rest of my life, giving back to the community.”
For more information about the GYFS Youth Board Sunday, Dec. 15 Teen Gift Drive or auditions for Alice in Wonderland Jr., contact Mike Kosko at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get ready to celebrate the holidays with our helpful guide
The 2020 Member Directory and Town Guide for Branford, Guilford, North Branford, and Northford has arrived!