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story.lead_photo.caption Aiden Beard, in kindergarten, shoots a basketball Friday at the Cole County Youth Day. Photo by Jenna Kieser

Racism. Bullying. Intolerance. Anxiety. The desire to fit in.

Those were all challenges Jefferson City's youth said they faced at their schools and in the community.

Jefferson City's youth spoke about their concerns Friday night during the third annual Cole County Youth Day at Lincoln University.

Hosted by about a dozen organizations, the youth day event allows fifth- through ninth-graders to have a voice in their community, event organizer Susan Cook-Williams said.

"The whole purpose of creating it was we were always asking adults in the community, 'What's wrong with our community? What could we do better? What type of issues do you see?' and we thought we should actually ask our youth those questions," she said. "So, it's designed so youth can have a voice in our community and help come up with solutions with issues that they see."

This year's theme centered around fitting in, which encompassed topics like bullying, anxiety, perfectionism and intolerance. The Cole County Youth Day committee selected this theme after several high school students said one of the things they struggled most with in middle school was fitting in with their peers.

Speaking to about 25 youths Friday night, Shauna Blanche, director of elementary programming at the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City, spoke on the importance of using their voices. When one person voices his or her concerns, she said, 50 other people may agree, allowing the group to work collectively toward a solution.

"In order to use your power, you have to use your voice," she said.

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High-schoolers led two breakout sessions following Blanche's speech, with about 12 adolescents in each group. While some of their challenges in school included adjusting to their teachers and school, many students emphasized intolerance and bullying as problems.

"There was a bigger person and they called them 'fat' in the comments (on social media)," one student said.

"Someone called my friend 'gay,'" another youth said. "It was supposed to be a joke, but it wasn't funny."

Organizers asked the News Tribune not to publish the youths' names as to help ensure the students felt comfortable discussing difficult or sensitive topics.

Many students said they felt like their voices were being heard in school since the "teachers are understanding about us and try to help us as much as they can," one teen said.

Others did not feel the same way.

"I don't think my voice is heard in my school," a student said. "My friends listen, but most of the students and teachers don't."

The challenges went beyond the classrooms and hallways, though. One group said violence, theft and intolerance were key things they wanted the community to discuss.

"They tend to look down on you if you like the same gender," one student said. "If they like the same gender, why can't you just be happy for them?"

When high school students asked participants in one breakout session if they felt their voices were being heard in the community, the answer was unanimous: "No."

Both high school and middle school students suggested more youth days similar to Friday's event to help them network with others. They also suggested creating groups in the schools and communities to address and educate individuals about intolerance.

By understanding local youth's concerns, Cook-Williams said the community can help address those issues. This would possibly encourage the younger individuals to stay in the community and help future generations.

While she wished more would have participated, Cook-Williams said, she plans to brainstorm ways to attract more teens next year.

Patsy Johnson, one of the event's volunteers, said allowing the youth to voice their concerns not only allows them to trouble-shoot issues, but also gives them resources for when they are adults.

"The theme is important because even as adults, we sometimes have trouble figuring out how to fit in because there are so many pressures around you and people trying to influence you in different directions," she said. "This gives them the opportunity to share and think about that and understand that there are options out there."