Indio Youth Advisory Council members deliver lunch to JFK Memorial Hospital's essential workers. Courtesy of the city of Indio.

In 1998, the city of Indio formed its Youth Advisory Council in an effort to engage the city’s youth more with local elected leaders. Now more than 20 years later, the council remains a unique presence in the Coachella Valley.

“The Youth Advisory Council program gives youth the opportunity to learn about local city government,” said Rosalva Campos, Indio’s community program administrator; she has managed all of YAC’s affairs for more than a dozen years now. “It’s an opportunity to see how the city works. They attend the City Council meetings and sit on the dais with the mayor and the other City Council members—and they have the opportunity to provide (the youth of the city) with a voice on youth-related issues in here the city of Indio.”

Lupe Ramos Amith has served on the Indio City Council since 2004.

“The Youth Advisory Council has been integral to the development of all youth programs (in Indio), and with the Teen Center,” she told the Independent in a recent interview. “Early on, when we created the youth master plan, we, as a council, recognized that our population is 25 percent under the age of 18—and if we wanted to grow a healthy community that offered positive programs for our youth, then we needed to get them involved early on in their development to become part of our city’s future.

“So, (YAC members) were part of designing the Teen Center, (including) deciding what programs and facilities the Teen Center would offer, and they continue to give input on policy direction that affects the youth of our community. We really appreciate the input they’ve given us. They’ve given us a dimensional perspective that can only come from that age demographic. (One member sits) on the dais with us during sessions, and they report to us on their research for their activities. Also, they’re big into giving back to the community. I believe that we’re building a foundation for our youth to eventually be the leaders of our city.”

Recent Indio High School graduate Denise Campos-Lagunas has served on the Youth Advisory Council for the last three years.

“I feel like I learned a lot from YAC. I learned time management and juggling multiple activities,” she said. “But I guess the most important thing I learned was (how to go about) looking at something, and then finding a way to work with it. So, like, if there was an issue that YAC as a whole was interested in, I learned the problem-solving skills (needed to address it).

“Over my years, we did a lot. In my first year, we did an anti-youth gambling campaign. We did things I didn’t know would be possible, like going to talk to local shop owners and having them promise that they wouldn’t sell lottery tickets to minors. I thought that we couldn’t really tell (the business owners) anything, and that they would just do what they wanted. So it was a great experience to learn that there are things you can do to solve problems that we see in our community.”

Katherine Escalante is another recent Indio High graduate and outgoing YAC member.

“Coming from a person who didn’t really participate much in high school, one thing I’m proud of as a part of YAC is that it really helped me express myself more, and learn more about my community (in relation) to certain events that I didn’t even know the city of Indio would do around this community,” Escalante said. “So, it’s crazy.

“One thing I learned from the experience is to talk more. Since I was a kid, I’ve been timid and shy. So I learned to be more expressive and to give more of my opinions when we wanted to do certain things for our community. I was able to be involved that way. Honestly, YAC really did help me with speaking in public. It still is very nerve-racking for me, but it has helped me a lot in that area. I know I will cherish that learning experience in the future and at college, because I’ll need to do a lot of public speaking, so it’s really helped me a lot.”

Rosalva Campos, Indio’s community program administrator, has managed all of YAC’s affairs for more than a dozen years now.

Campos explained how the program works.

“There is no set number (of members), so it really just depends,” she said. “This past year, there were 14. While only one YAC member sits on the dais at each City Council meeting, all the other members attend and are seated in the audience. They rotate who is on the dais. It actually depends on the YAC mayor, who decides how it works, but, typically, they rotate.”

YAC members must live within Indio’s city limits, maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average, and be in grades 9-12.

How often does the group meet?

“It depends on the group,” said Campos. “I just leave it up to them. I always tell them, ‘You can meet as much or as little as you want to make it. This is your group.’ Basically, I just consider myself their personal Uber. With most of our kids, transportation is always an issue. So I’ll get them somewhere as long as there’s a consensus, and there are going to be enough of them to make it worth the trip. During the pandemic, they were meeting every other week, and I was surprised. I was setting up the Zoom meetings for them, and they were on it. They were super-active during the pandemic, which really impressed me.”

Denise Campos-Lagunas spent three years on the Youth Advisory Council. The Indio High School grad will begin school at UC Irvine in the fall.

Both the adult and youth councils hope to return to in-person meetings in August. Campos-Lagunas said her interactions with the City Council during her three years on the YAC had a definite impact.

“Meeting the City Council felt encouraging to me,” Campos-Lagunas said. “To actually get involved, once I was 18 and was allowed to vote, I felt like my vote does matter, and my voice can have an effect. Before that, I felt like (City Council business) was all private matters—that they knew what they were doing, and (citizens) would only vote now and then. But meeting the City Council members—I know it sounds weird, but you realize that they’re real human beings. I felt more comfortable knowing that they’re normal people.”

The Desert Sands Unified School District will open its doors to students on Aug. 18, and the new Youth Advisory Council will get together quickly to choose two specific issues to address during the coming year.

“What they’ve been doing is choosing a local and a global issue, and then they determine how they want to fulfill those goals,” Campos said. “Also, what do they need to do? If it requires funds, and most of the time it does, then (they plan out) how they’re going to fund-raise, and what they’re going to achieve with it.”

Over the years, various iterations of the YAC have done things such as contribute $2,300 to build a well in Uganda, and provide clothes to shelters in Mexico. This past year’s student group wanted to support education in El Salvador, but the pandemic interfered.

“During the pandemic, they had chosen (to provide) hygiene kits for the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission,” Campos said. “For the global (objective), they had chosen education in El Salvador. However, during the pandemic … they couldn’t reach anyone. So, I tried too, and everything (in El Salvador) was pretty much on lockdown. So … they decided to do an additional local issue, which was to support small businesses in Indio by helping essential workers. So, first, they gave pizza from Mario’s Italian Café in Indio to staff at JFK (Memorial Hospital). Next, they served a burrito lunch at the Dr. Carreon (Academy), and that supported Tacos Gonzalez as well. … To see them evolve and actually support small businesses was really cool. Also, they promoted these (efforts) online on their social media. They promoted different businesses and tried to get people to shop local.”

The admiration and appreciation between Campos and her YAC mentees seems to be mutual.

“Rosalva was a great adviser to have,” said Campos-Lagunas, who will attend UC Irvine this fall. “I’m not sure how to say this, but she’s very relatable. She knows how to talk to the youth and get messages to the youth—but also she gets the job done. My experience with most advisers was that they were scary. They were like, ‘Yeah, we need to do this!’ and they were very distant. But Rosalva has a really great way of reaching out to youth. Not in a way like, ‘I’m in charge of you,’ and, ‘I need to make sure that this gets done,’ but in a way that says, ‘We’re a group, and let’s get this done, but let’s also have some fun.’ She wanted us to enjoy the experience.”

Escalante, who plans to attend Cal State San Bernardino as an art and design major this fall, said she most enjoyed participating in the city’s events, and getting to know her fellow council members.

“Not only do I get to have (relationships) with kids from my own school, but we had some students from Shadow Hills, La Quinta and Xavier Prep, so I got to know more people,” Escalante said. … “I liked that about it, because like I said, I wasn’t really involved in high school; I was only involved in one club. But I took YAC more seriously, and I had fun. … Even though we were doing something serious, there was always like a little joke or something and it was a really fun experience.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...