It’s colorful. It’s long-lasting. And it’s bigger than themselves. It’s what the students involved in the inaugural class of City Youth Connection have been dreaming up for their own city. Yes, it’s a mural, inspired by the ones they have seen in downtown Birmingham. But those descriptors fit just as well with the program as a whole that Vestavia Hills High School senior Kendall Carter has dreamed up and brought to life.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the mural. “I love downtown Birmingham and it’s filled with different murals,” Kendall explains. “I really like to take pictures, and when you take them in front of murals, more people can see that part of your city and want to participate in it more.”

So that’s what she and her peers involved in CYC have cast vision for: a piece of Vestavia artwork that the community can celebrate. Right now it’s still in the idea phase, but they know if they move forward with it it will encompass all of Vestavia Hills, including Cahaba Heights, Liberty Park and the Highway 31 corridor. And they’ve already figured out the steps they would need to get it approved by city council and find sponsors to fund it.

Kendall has talked to a city council member about the mural idea and printed out different ordinance for signs for the city, discovering along the way that if it’s over a certain size they would have to present their proposal city council and get it approved. “Now they see that when you go to the drawing table you really have to get your hands dirty,” CYC sponsor and VHHS teacher Pauline Parker says.

And this gets to the heart of what CYC is about. To paint that picture, let’s rewind the story back to 2016. Kendall was finishing her sophomore year and looking into volunteer opportunities. She saw there were lots of ways for VHHS students to plug into volunteering within the school, but not a strong connection to the city of Vestavia Hills itself and the chamber of commerce. And that’s when the idea came to fill that void. By the time she talked to teacher Pauline Parker about sponsoring it, it had fully come into being. “She had everything laid out, so that made it very easy to digest and want to be a part of because I could see her vision,” Parker says.

Kendall’s vision for CYC came into being last fall—getting high school students presenting to city council, attending chamber board meetings, learning how the community works. With a keen interest in politics, it’s no surprise that taking notes from people ahead of her in their life journeys was also a key component of Kendall’s idea. “We have grown up in this community, and it’s helpful to us to learn from community leaders,” she explains. “If we have an issue, we can learn how to work through it. We can get exposed to aspects of city government that ordinarily you wouldn’t be exposed to.”

Along the way, CYC has been hands-on helping with city and chamber events: serving concessions at Wing Ding, painting faces at I Love America Day, meeting vendors and helping with the chamber table at the Back to School Bash, and helping with hot chocolate and the photo booth at Holiday in the Hills. They have also attended chamber meetings and luncheons. In all of it the heart of the group is about connecting students who have already arisen as leaders in the school to the city. “It’s good for everyone to converse and share their ideas with like-minded people,” Kendall says. “But we all have different ideas too, so it’s good for us to feed off each other and use our different characteristics to share in our other organizations.”

CYC opportunities also allow different students’ strengths to shine and find real world application. Last fall, for example, when they helped Southminster Presbyterian Church with social media, it was Joey Compton’s tech skills that came into play. “He showed the head pastor how to promote a photo and create an alumni group,” Kendall recounts. “It was cool to see Joey work with different people in the community.”

As the visionary of the group, Kendall has embraced the ideas she speaks of. “Kimberly Cook helped me get this idea of the ground,” Kendall says of the Vestavia Hills City Council member. “I emailed her and had coffee with her. She’s been my go-to for different rules and for events they need help with. Your elected officials are there to help you.” She and other CYC students have also gotten to meet State Senator Jabo Waggoner and Mayor Ashley Curry and talk to them at events—enabling for the connection the group’s name alludes to. “I think it has taken away a fear of reaching out to the city,” Parker says. “[The students] are now often in places where [these leaders] are.”

As the first year of CYC wraps up, Kendall and Parker are interviewing students for next year’s class. They look at candidates’ GPAs and ask them questions, but they are also looking to see that they have shown leadership skills in other organizations. “Most importantly we want to know how they will contribute to CYC and make it perpetuate, make sure it stays strong and viable at Vestavia Hills High School,” Parker says.

Speaking of perpetuating the club, they’ve found a new leader to take Kendall’s spot at the helm of CYC: Kennedy Crane. “I could see her leadership skills throughout the year,” Kendall says. “She was always willing to help and texting me to do offer to do things.” It’s one thing to be a leader yourself, but quite another to train up one. Kendall seems to be on top of all of that too though. She’s had Kennedy shadow her and shown her how send emails and introduce herself at events. “I am a camp counselor, so it’s always been what I do to lead and show,” Kendall says.

Kendall’s binder of notes and GroupMe messaging system with the CYC crew make her administrative skills more than obvious, and she notes the importance of communication and organization. But what does it really mean to be a leader, we asked her. “I think the number one thing is to be optimistic and to not give up,” she responds. “Keep on pushing for it and share with others what your passion is and hope they’ll join along. Keep on trying. It will happen.”

Kendall is one determined individual, that’s for sure. And now as she prepares to graduate, it’s time to leave the spirit that’s she trained others with as a part of CYC. “That vision still lies with her,” Parker says. “She’s such a visionary. Next year I know she will still be cheering this on because it’s her baby. The concept and idea all came from her, so I think she will forever have a very deep hold on what is going to happen.”

Why CYC?

A Chat with Victoria Morrison & Salem Khalaf

On Events That Stands Out

VM: In the past I’ve worked the Christmas Tree Lighting as a Belle in the dress, and obviously the kids run up to you. But this year with CYC we got to have more conversations with community members who I wouldn’t necessarily talk to.

SK: This is what has gotten me involved in coming to these events. Now because I am a part of it, I have seen it’s a fun thing. The entire community attends, so even after I finish high school, I’ll want to come back with my friends.

VM: A lot of the times the city feels separated, but it’s cool to see Cahaba Heights Elementary and Liberty Park Elementary and West Elementary all singing at the Christmas Tree Lighting.

On Being With Other Leaders

SK: It’s really motivational. You are always pushing each other to do more.

VM: Since we are so involved, we have to manage our time so we can take time in the afternoon to come do things like this.

On City Connections

VM: This club involves a lot of time outside of school. It’s worth it because you get to participate in these events that make the city what it is. Otherwise you’d be removed from that.

SK: Being 11 miles away from the high school [in Liberty Park], I didn’t know anything about Vestavia before I got to the high school. Joining organizations like this meant I got to get involved in the city and serve to benefit it.

On What They Have Learned

VM: Programs like this teach you life skills that go beyond the books: serving your neighbors, time management. It makes it so much more awesome because it’s applicable past high school.

SK: We’ve also learned social skills.

VM: We had to talk to community members. I think it also instills some sort of confidence in you.