I was extremely disheartened when I read about the cancellation of Summer Fest and not just because I’m going to miss the giant slide and the stuffed animals my husband wins for me with his dart-throwing skills. What upset me was seeing the cancellation attributed to “groups of unruly teenagers.”

One of my other jobs—my favorite job—is writing for teenagers and I’d just finished an essay for Rookie, an online magazine for teen girls, about why I’d hated growing up in Oak Park and how moving to Forest Park in my twenties changed my perspective on living in the suburbs. My trouble with Oak Park as a teenager stemmed from the feeling of being judged and persecuted just for being young and looking different. I remember being regularly harassed just for walking around with my friends at Oak Park’s Summer Fest equivalent, Midnight Madness, even though we weren’t doing anything wrong. I would hate—like Packers/Bears rivalry level of hatred—for Forest Park teens to feel like I did in Oak Park.

I’m not saying that there weren’t unruly groups of teens at Summer Fest. Teens can be unruly… but so can adults. Trust me, I’m a bartender, I know. However, for the most part, teens get unruly because they are bored, and when they are engaged they can do amazing, world-changing things.

No one in Forest Park knows this better than Susan Kunkle, head of Youth Services, and Regina Townsend, Youth Services Outreach Librarian, from the Forest Park Library. Regina offered an incredible perspective on the adult/teen relationship, saying, “I find that most adults have trouble communicating with teens, so they distance themselves from them, and it’s understandable on some levels. Teens are at the age where they are intelligent enough to say some really profound things … but not always mature enough to check the arrogance that comes with it. So they end up offending or even intimidating many adults because they come across as brash and disrespectful, and those adults are often unable to look past the arrogance and see the intelligence.”

However, the key to engaging teens is listening. As Susan put it, “Teens are just naturally going to respond better in situations where they feel like their input means something.” This is why the Youth Services staff at FPPL has such a good rapport with the teens. They have a Teen Advisory Board, a Tween Town Hall, and a gaming advisory group that they use to shape programming. One thing they got a lot of requests for was volunteer activities. In fact the library couldn’t accommodate all of the requests, so Regina started the Me:U Service Learning Club to transform the library from “a volunteering facility into a facilitator,” helping teens and tweens plan and identify volunteer opportunities.

This showcases what teens can do when they’re engaged and I hope that the Chamber of Commerce will consider that when planning a “family-friendly” Summer Fest. Teens are part of our families and as Susan pointed out, “We have a lot of really great events in Forest Park, but a lot of the activities are geared towards adults and younger kids/families.” She had a lot of great suggestions such booths with an interactive component, gaming tournaments, a DJ, open mic, or battle of bands, but she said that asking teens directly is always the best way to learn what they want. As a person who remembers all too well how it felt to be left out of the community as a teen, I hope Forest Park will find more ways to follow our library’s great example.

Stephanie Kuehnert

Stephanie is the author of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" and "Ballads of Suburbia." She's a proud Forest Parker who holds a master's in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally...

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