ARLINGTON, Va. - Being a teenager in a National Guard family can bring its own unique challenges outside of the everyday items often faced by teenagers. As a way to focus on issues faced by teens from Guard families, the National Guard Teen Panel provides a way for teenagers to voice those concerns to Guard senior leaders.
"The goal of the panel is to voice concerns and issues at the national level and to prioritize those issues and actually present it to our leadership for resolution," said Robin Cordovez, the acting child and youth programs manager at the National Guard Bureau, who oversees the program.
Composed of 10 regional representatives and three members-at-large, the panel meets in person quarterly to discuss those issues. Additionally, teen panel members take part in monthly conference call meetings while also working with their state and regional Guard teen panel or council, said Cordovez.
"Typically, one of the big things they bring to the meetings are the actual concerns and issues they've heard from the teen panels from their states," said Cordovez, adding that the quarterly meetings are organized around resolving specific, overarching concerns.
Those issues can range from recreation programs available to Guard youth to concerns and challenges they may face while a parent or guardian is deployed.
Recently, concerns brought up by the teen panel resulted in changes to the Yellow Ribbon Re-integration Program, which works to assist Guard members returning from deployments. The Yellow Ribbon Program had a lot of programs geared toward younger children, but few programs geared toward teenagers, said Cordovez.
Teen panel members briefed senior Guard leaders on those concerns and "from there, a plan was come up with for more programming for teens at the Yellow Ribbon events," Cordovez said, adding that as an adult, those were items that she wouldn't have been aware of without the insights of the teen panel.
"Teens can get a better handle on those concerns than we can as adults," she said.
That's the larger reason for the panel, said Cordovez, adding that the panel itself is facilitated by adults, but directed and led by the teenage panel members.
Those interested in becoming part of the Guard Teen Panel first must be active with their local teen panel or council, said Cordovez. Additionally, they must also be active in larger community activities and programs as well as maintain a 3.0 or higher grade point average. From there, prospective members must submit an application packet that details a number of items, including an essay portion focusing on how they have worked to find resolution to a problem or issue in the past.
Showing leadership and problem solving skills are some of the items review committee members are looking for when reviewing application packets, said Cordovez. Committee members also consider the breadth and scope of activities that applicants are already involved with. The goal is to ensure that potential teen panel members aren't taking on more than they can handle.
"When you are pulling from the cream of the crop they are often already into so many things," said Cordovez "So, we try and make sure there is a balance and they can handle coming up here and handle the responsibilities as well as the responsibilities in their state."
Taking on those responsibilities were one of the things that appealed to Marianna Furfaro, 17, a current member of the Guard Teen Panel.
"I like to know that I'm actually helping someone," she said. "I like to be able to get up in the morning and be like, "I can actually help solve their problems'."
That sense of wanting to help came from her own experiences when her father deployed when she was 13.
"My dad deployed twice my eighth grade year," she said. "I didn't really have anyone to reach out to. Once I found out about the programs (offered for children of deployed Guard members) and that I could meet with these other kids whose parents might be deployed too, I wanted to make that opportunity available to everyone."
Being a member of the Guard Teen Panel has been challenging, but working to help other Guard teens has been rewarding as well, she said.
"Now I have a way to help them and make their lives a little easier," she said, "because it's not always easy to be a Guard kid."
For Jameson McCaffrie, also a current member of the Guard Teen Panel, meeting peers and others from throughout the country has been one of the best parts about being a member of the panel.
"I really fell in love with it because of all the different people you get to meet," he said. "It's awesome and this is an amazing opportunity. Being a homeschooler, I don't get to get out of the house too much. These kind of opportunities to advocate for your state and other military kids is pretty cool."
And advocating for other military teens is the important part, he said.
"It's important because it represents the entire National Guard youth and all the things it does for the kids," he said. "Being able to be a part of that, for me, is really cool."
Simply watching the teen panel work together to resolve those issues is "pretty cool" for many of the adults as well.
"These kids are really bright, smart, well-spoken and really what we ask for," said Cordovez. "They're a great representation of National Guard youth. It's pretty cool and they're all so excited to get together and provide input. I love to hear their stories."
Cordovez said she sees the program continuing to improve on providing that voice for Guard teens.
"We're great now and we've got a solid foundation," she said. "We say it all the time, but the program is going to continue to be their voice and bring recognition to not only the issues and concerns, but the accomplishments as well."