Smart Investment: Civic Engagement

Throughout the Valley, civic engagement is learned young and practiced for a lifetime.

We live in a world that is bigger than family, coworkers, and our circle of friends. Each of us can make a meaningful difference in that world through civic engagement. Casting a vote, volunteering on a town board, or supporting a local charity are only some examples of becoming civically engaged and these values are often instilled early in life.

Teaching children to appreciate a role in a bigger picture is an effective first step in promoting civic engagement. Dr. Beth Smith, Shelton High School Principal, and Catherine Burgholzer, social studies teacher, have developed a curriculum in response to a state requirement. As part of their studies, students learn about a range of concepts about rights and responsibilities of citizens, the rule of law, democratic principles, and the benefits of civic engagement.

Burgholzer said, "We start with ways in which students can become active members of the community through service, being a good citizen, and voting. Then, they come up with some very interesting dialogue about what that means to them."

Dr. Smith added that the concepts are incorporated in the school's core values and tied to community activities, such as the Valley Goes Pink campaign held every October in Seymour to raise awareness for breast cancer. "Almost every student athlete participates by wearing pink jerseys, socks, or gloves during a game. Parents also get involved and show support through booster clubs and fundraisers."

The impact on Shelton High School students has been measurable. Many students go beyond the school's required 10 hours of community service each year, with some continuing their civic engagement past graduation.

According to Dr. Smith, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "Students feel good when they've done something good for others and we hope we're developing habits that will become part of their lives as they mature into adulthood. This experience expands on transferable skills, includinghow to become part of a team and communicating with people face to face. These are skills we teach in a K-12setting that we hope stay with students long after high school."

Burgholzer said one student defined civic engagement by remembering the story of the starfish—picking up one starfish stranded on a beach among hundreds and putting it back in the water made a difference to that one starfish.

"That story made a difference to the boy's sibling. For him, being a citizen was about being a role model in his own home. That's when you know the kids are getting it," she said. "I think it's important that we all take responsibility for contributing positively. We may not all have the resources to donate time or money but we can start by doing something every single day, even if it's as small as holding a door for someone."

Civic engagement is also inclusive of formal government. Veterans raise funds to provide juniors in high school with the chance to learn about government through the American Legion Boys State and Girls State High School Leadership Programs.

The students gather at a college—Eastern Connecticut State University for the boys and Post University for the girls—where they form political parties.

After electing officers, they develop a platform and run through a local election process. Then, they run a state-level election, experiencing for themselves what it means to run as a candidate for the Senate or House.

The students also work within the governments they form, proposing and debating bills as they attempt to create laws. The opportunity to develop leadership, speaking, and writing skills has impressed the members of the American Legion, like Erwin (Gus) Williams. "It's amazing how they grow in that one week. When they apply for jobs later, employers can see the leadership skills they have learned and recognize its value."

Fundraising isn't easy but Williams feels it's worthwhile. "I enjoy seeing students develop into the future leaders of America. When we give these young adults an opportunity to advance to levels beyond where they are now, they can take what they've learned, build on it, and pass it on. That's one of the reasons why we have such a great nation."

For some, after a career of making the community a better place, the community responds by memorializing that effort. Have you ever wondered why a name appears on a street sign or building? In the case of the Belden Cultural Center, the name reflects how Richard (Dick) O. Belden dedicated so much of his time and energy to improving his community. The dedication was given to the former Lafayette School in 2017, which is now home to the Registrar of Voters in addition to several nonprofit groups such as Center Stage Theatre, TEAM, Inc., and Valley United Way.

Jack Walsh, VCF Board Member and former Valley United Way President & COO, said, "Naming the center for Dick is fitting because of how important he was to the culture of Shelton. He was an example of everything you want in a leader."

Belden was a lifelong resident of Shelton, alderman, and state representative to the Connecticut General Assembly who was known for his problem-solving approach. The way in which he studied issues and sought opinions on both sides of every matter delivered results that benefited the community.

Jimmy Ryan, VCF Board Member, Board Chair for The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and former President of the Shelton Economic Development Corporation, fondly remembers Dick Belden. "He was rated as the best prepared representative, a designation that was richly deserved. When we would walk together, everyone would stop Dick and ask for his advice. He was truly an elected official who was there for the people."

As Ryan promoted redevelopment along the river and sought highly contested financial resources, he relied on Dick's ability to contact the right people and promote collaboration. "We made profound progress in downtown Shelton. That wouldn't have happened as quickly as it did without Dick's leadership. He made sure that all views were on the table and carefully weighed the pros and cons before making a decision. He was the model of civic engagement and we need more people like him," said Ryan.

Belden was renowned for walking or biking up and down Long Hill Ave. in Shelton. Despite his elevated position in the community and the serious topics he would address on behalf of residents, he would still take the time to pick up a bottle or a piece of litter, making the neighborhood that tiny bit better.

The Cultural Center, located at 54 Grove St. in Shelton, contains a range of memorabilia from Dick's life, including his chair from the House of Representatives, pictures, and plaques recognizing his many contributions to the community he was so passion about.

So what can you do? Get involved in the community in which you live or work. Vote. Serve on a local board. Contact your elected officials about topics impacting your town or city. Volunteer. The ways to participate in civic engagement are almost endless.