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County Youth Programs Expand Youth Opportunities

Local musician gives back to the community that raised her.

Charlene Johnson can tell by the look on students' faces when her youth development programs work.

"Those are my cues that this is or is not effective programming. What good is a song if it doesn't inspire, if it has no message; that's what I believe about programming," said Johnson, a former Loudoun resident now living in Arlington.

Johnson, who is the manager of youth development for the county, had started on another career path. At the age of four she played the piano and at age six began taking lessons when she could reach the pedals.

"My community supported me as a budding musician, as a leader," Johnson said. "I had people who took an interest in me, and they encouraged me and did exactly what I am doing. ... It does take a village to raise a child. I'm a product of a supporting, loving village."

By the time she was 16, Johnson decided to study music therapy after taking a psychology course. In college, she double majored in psychology and music, earning the bachelor's degrees in 1982 and a master's degree in psychology in 1987.

"The music industry is one of the media that has given young people the widest opportunity to express themselves ... and that's healthy. ... I don't know of another industry that is that sensible," Johnson said.

After receiving her master's degree, Johnson worked in programming and grant writing for the Northern Virginia Urban League in Alexandria, then in 1998 took the Loudoun position.

AS PROGRAM manager, Johnson designs youth programs to give students a chance to express themselves and interact with one another.

"I think it's important for the community to offer interactive opportunities for kids, otherwise we will look to have a generation of people disassociated from life," said Johnson, adding that she realizes she has to compete with technology and the mass media to get the students to participate. "It has become so graphically, visually engaging, so that when I do ads or get fliers to get youth's attention, I have to work twice as hard. That's the competition."

Johnson designs and markets youth programs to appeal to children and teens, remembering that when she was younger, she was absorbed with playing Pac Man. "Pac Man was my Game Boy. What I learned from this is how easy it is to become comfortable with that level of interaction," she said.

At the same time, Johnson's involvement in the direct service programs keeps her "real," she said. "I get to talk to, interact with and hear what kids need and design programs based on that."

The Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services operates the youth development programs, which were previously operated through the Office of Youth until April 2002 when the state stopped providing the program funding.

THE PROGRAMS include:

* The Youth After-School Program, which provides a homework club and supervised recreational activities for middle school students that include sports, games, arts and crafts, music, drama and life skills.

* Loudoun County Girls Inc., an after-school program for girls to participate in enrichment activities, learn resiliency skills, listen to speakers talk about careers and goal setting and do their homework. The program is funded through a federal grant for teen pregnancy prevention.

* A quarterly cooking class for boys in conjunction with the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council.

"I don't offer the cooking class for girls; much too traditional," Johnson said, adding that the class "entertains. It engages, it provides information, and it's fun. What's not to like?"

* Tobacco abuse education at the primary and secondary school levels, funded through a $115,000 grant received through the Virginia tobacco settlement fund.

"It's a great opportunity to affect change in the lives of young people," Johnson said. "In terms of long-lasting change, it's important to be at the policy level."

JOHNSON SERVES as a staff member on the Advisory Commission on Youth, which includes adult members appointed by the Board of Supervisors and two student members from each of the high schools.

The Commission identifies new programming needs in the county, most recently the need for a teen center, and provides the youth with leadership training and community service opportunities.

"Teens are not just about entertainment. They want to express themselves and speak their minds," Johnson said.

The student members learn how to take an idea and turn it into a concept, then develop a plan that they have to sell to the entire Commission. If the Commission approves of the plan, the students are responsible for marketing and finding ways to fund and implement the plan. Last year, the students developed a biannual youth speak-out to give teens the chance to talk about their needs in a safe environment.

"I think it's cool because everyone comes together ... for a common goal," said McKenzie Lawyer, a 16-year-old sophomore at Stone Bridge High School.

The Commission sponsors two Youth in Government Days twice a year, one for the members and the second for high school juniors and seniors to learn about government by shadowing county employees and officials for a day. Johnson identified the success of the program by the look on students' faces, including McKenzie's.

"You could see it in on her face. It was her energy and enthusiasm around what she's learning," said Johnson, a former Loudoun resident who now lives in Arlington. "It was so rewarding to see how her face lit up."

Likewise, McKenzie said, "Charlene is great. ... She listens, and she tries to help us take our ideas and turn them into action. ... Her personality is intoxicating and contagious. She has a smile on her face all of the time."

Johnson represents Loudoun on the State Coalition of Offices on Youth. She has been a member since 1998.