Youth Summit: Why Not Here?

Youth Summit: Why Not Here?

Why aren't there youth summits at all high schools?

After Whitman's Youth Summit on Dec. 10, a number of students immediately sought help for friends or themselves.

"We were given names yesterday in the school population of six students for whom someone expressed concern. We've been seeing those students today to process yesterday's presentation and relevance," said Margaret Cothern, counselor at Whitman High School.

Another Whitman senior approached Ross Szabo, 25, after he talked about his experience with bipolar disorder and how he survived a suicide attempt.

"She had bipolar disorder and she was worried and concerned if she would have a breakdown as she makes that transition to college," said Szabo, youth director of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

"We are trying to promote the message that you can make that transition smoothly, but that you should take care of yourself, you should learn about what you can and cannot handle," he said. "If we can teach young people positive coping mechanisms at a young age, then that is the most amazing gift a young person can have."

Three other students approached Shannon Valentine to ask her where they could seek help for themselves or for friends. Valentine, a Whitman graduate, lost her brother Michael Valentine to suicide in June of 2002.

"Every student in every high school should have this at least once a year," said Dr. Suzanne Griffin, one of the 85 guest speakers to came to Whitman to talk with students.

SO WHY AREN'T there youth summits at all Montgomery County High Schools if Whitman's is so beneficial.

"The school system doesn't have the time to pull different speakers together…It really requires community spirit and participation from the PTA to pull it together," said school board member, Patricia O'Neill, who attended the summit. "There are a lot of areas that kids should discuss that are around the edges of academics — important social issues such as stress management and suicide prevention. To have a program of this magnitude requires heavy duty parental involvement."

BEKKI SIMS, the chair of Whitman's Youth Summit Committee, became involved in 1998, the year Bonnie Perkins, Margaret Cothern and students initiated the first Whitman's first summit.

"I was smitten with their positive energy," said Sims, whose daughter graduated last year. Sims doesn't have a child at Whitman anymore, but continued to be the chair of the committee since she believes every school should have a youth summit.

"It almost has to be student run. We [parent volunteers] recruit speakers, but I try to get students involved to make decisions about what everybody wants," Sims said. "They know what's relevant to them and to their peers."

The Consumer Health Foundation awarded Sims a grant through the Family Services Agency to initiate a youth summit at Sherwood High School in April and another high school that is to be determined later this year.

"If every SGA and PTA gets involved, they can make it happen. I would love to teach people who want to do it," Sims said.

Sims can be contacted at