This interview is part of NADO’s “Youth with a Voice” case studies series, which highlights small towns and rural communities that are effectively engaging young people in planning and community development projects.
Tom Laverriere is a senior at Biddeford High School. He is currently deciding which college to attend, and plans to study film and Spanish. He became involved with local projects in Biddeford through his school’s National Honor Society. “Getting involved in the community has given me an incredible sense of pride,” he says.
Click here to learn more about youth participation in Biddeford’s community development initiatives.
What activities are you involved with in Biddeford that promote community development?
Biddeford’s a mill town in the midst of a major downtown revitalization project, so most of my early community involvement started at the mills on Main Street. I’ve volunteered at and planned several events for adults and children at the mills, most notably Biddeford High School National Honor Society’s famous historical/theatrical mill tours. In these tours, guides bring attendees through the mills, stopping at various points to see theatrical skits depicting historically-accurate snapshots of mill life. The tour routes and skits change with each event. Our most popular tours are on Halloween night, when patrons get to see the most haunted spots of the mills and the skits show the (mostly) true stories of the spirits that occupy them. No matter what the occasion, events like these get people excited by their community and its history. It gives them something to be proud of. It’s really fantastic to see.
What motivated you to become involved in these projects?
I was first introduced to these projects by the members of the National Honor Society (NHS) when I was a junior. They recruited me to help with one of their events at the mills, and then I was hooked. Not only did getting involved with the community fulfill an NHS requirement, but I truly loved what I was doing. Working in the community gives you opportunities to connect with people on a deep level that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. After establishing some connections, my motivation to stay involved is knowing that I can make a difference. “Community service” is so much more than picking up litter or mowing a public lawn–it is those things, but it can be more, and more exciting. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned while in high school is the power of creating publicity, especially among the youth. If you can find a way to get the city’s teenagers excited, you’ll be successful. Luckily, there are many creative ways to do that.
How have your views of your hometown changed after working on these projects?
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but for many years I didn’t like my hometown. Up until I was about 15 I thought it was boring, had no real opportunities, and was inferior to neighboring communities. It wasn’t until I got involved in it that I realized how great it is. I’ve seen how my actions, and the actions of anyone else willing to put themselves out there and put in the work, matter. We create our own communities; it’s a matter of making the choice to be happy where you are and make the most of it–and then make it even more than that.
What advice do you have for other students in other towns who want to get involved with improving their communities?
There are two things that I think are most important in order to have a positive impact on the community: communication and persistence. Networking is crucial. Nothing’s ever going to change (certainly not for the better, anyway) if people don’t connect with each other and truly get a sense of what the community offers. Even if there’s not a lot available in terms of local businesses or organizations, there are people out there who have the talent and skills necessary to create them. Next, nothing is perfectly successful overnight. It took years and a few seemingly failed attempts by various organizations before I noticed a positive change happening in Biddeford. I applaud those that believed in the community and stuck with it. Now, in my opinion, every community is worth the effort. If you keep trying, people can’t ignore you. Eventually, they’ll start helping you. Then things get exciting.
Do you have plans to return to Biddeford after college?
I don’t plan on living in Biddeford as an adult, but I’ll definitely come back to visit. I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago, but after all the great developments that have unfolded right before my eyes I can’t imagine leaving and never coming back. It’s becoming a better place to live all the time. I’m afraid that if I were to wait several years before coming back I might not recognize it! I want to check in regularly, even stay involved if I can. Getting involved in the community has given me an incredible sense of pride. Part of the reason I want to visit is so I can look back and say, “I helped do this. This is where I grew up, and it’s awesome.” Because it is–and I helped make it that way.
The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.