The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

Making an impact can seem like an impossible goal for anyone, particularly for teens, but there are opportunities to be heard even without casting a ballot.

This weekend, local youth have an opportunity to learn about a variety of topics during the San Mateo County Youth Conference. Hosted by the San Mateo County Youth Commission with the help of other San Mateo County groups, the free Saturday event at the College of San Mateo offers panel discussions with leaders, presentations with movies, how-to lessons and the opportunity to meet with a variety of local organizations.

“This is a great place to learn how to step up, get involved and be empowered. It’s so important for youth to feel the community’s positive efforts and realize that they can be part of the change instead of thinking that it’s the adults who do everything. This is the place to be to see the amazing work of youth in our community and to be a part of it. This is a great place to start for youth who don’t know how to get involved,” said 18-year-old Seema Chaundhry, a senior at Sequoia High School.

The youth-driven event doesn’t stray from conversations that are often difficult for adults to address with their teens.

Chaundhry, for example, is taking part in the “Sex, Drugs and Rock ’N’ Roll (without the Sex and Rock ’N’ Roll)” presentation. The goal is to have an open conversation and educate teens about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Chaundhry noted many parents are in denial about their child’s access to and/or use of drugs. But annual assessments of students has shown it’s an issue, she said.

“As a teen myself, I know one of the worst things is walking around with the wrong information. We are strongly encouraging youth to come out and be honest with us about questions they may have regarding [alcohol, tobacco and other drugs] use and are looking forward to having engaging conversations with them that we can all take something away from,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Robert Sukhovitsky, a junior at Sequoia High School, joined the commission in hopes of standing out to college but soon realized it gave him an opportunity to help others. During this weekend’s event he’ll be teaching the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu interactive workshop which will include a demonstration, teach youth self defense techniques and a rape-prevention session for ladies.

“Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a very positive energy for the lives of youth. It stresses non-violence and health,” he said.

Sukhovitsky will also moderate the legislation and young leaders panels designed to answer teens questions and also provide steps to become more involved.

Mental health is also a big issue for all people.

Heather Ngai, a 17-year-old senior from Burlingame High School, will be part of the “Project Happiness” presentation, which includes a film showing and panel discussion about ways to maintain happiness.

“Teenagers are especially under an enormous amount of stress and pressure, and part of what every person should have in their lives is happiness. Happiness is something that we all search for and want, but we don’t know how to really achieve it; it’s so abstract of a concept. And I think that more people can gain happiness and by sharing it, we can create a more peaceful and harmonious society and life,” said Ngai.

There will also be discussion about teen parenthood, the cycle of violence, budget cuts, undocumented youth, local policies and the Hillsdale Effect — a student group that raises money for micro-loans to give to women in Guatemala to start businesses.

Students hope the variety of topics will mean everyone can learn something.

“I want people to feel inspired and ready to start their own revolutions. This entire event is geared towards helping youth feel empowered as well as adults to see the work that people are doing to change their communities,” said Ngai.

The free San Mateo County Youth Conference will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17 in Building 10 of the College of San Mateo, 1700 W. Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo. Limited registration remains open meaning people can attend but may need to bring their own breakfast and lunch.

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