“Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth.”
— Albus Dumbledore,
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”
“Almost everything that is great has been done by youth.”
— Benjamin Disraeli
I’ve worked in the Delaware County Juvenile Court in one capacity or another for nearly 19 years now. I’m approaching seven years in the role of judge of that court. As a juvenile court judge, I’m frequently asked by people if the job sours me on youth or if I have a generally negative attitude about teenagers because of what I see at work. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I am constantly reminded of the incredible things that our youth accomplish. I see it at work. I see it in my neighborhood. I see it in the newspaper and on television. We are surrounded by it daily. We have five tremendous and highly rated public school systems headquartered in our county (and several others that serve parts of the county, along with several excellent private schools). Our youth excel in music, drama, art, athletics, agriculture and, of course, academics. If you’re paying attention, you cannot help but be impressed, and proud of what Delaware County’s youth achieve.
Every Thanksgiving since 2015, I have been given an incredible reminder of this. That Thanksgiving, the Delaware County Probate/Juvenile Court and the administration, teachers and students of Hayes High School teamed up to organize the first “Fight Against Hunger Games.” The event started when Cecelia Monahan, then an intake officer for the court, proposed that we take a small food drive the court had run for several years and see if Hayes High School was interested in joining with us. Ric Stranges, the principal at Hayes, loved the idea and decided to make the food drive part of the “House”competition at the high school. The students responded in incredible fashion and donated more than 11,000 individual food items.
The following year, the students gathered just under 16,000 individual food items. Students and court staff sorted the food and on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we were able to hand out complete Thanksgiving meals to families in need for nearly two hours during the school day. Thousands of additional boxed and canned food items were transported by the Juvenile Court community service van to a local food bank.
In its third year, the event expanded to include other county government offices, and then in future years to other schools, community agencies, nonprofits, donations from grocery stores, and even large, sturdy bags from IKEA. The Delaware Public Health District now joins the distribution day to check car seats and offer flu shots. And this year, thanks to donations of food and money by hundreds of people and the work of dozens of volunteers who sorted items into meal kits and spent days organizing for distribution, some 450 complete meals will be available.
From grade school to high school, our youth achieve things that we often would have thought unthinkable ourselves. It is this recognition — the potential kids hold — that drives what we do at the Juvenile Court. Three quotes are stenciled on the wall of my courtroom. One is from James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.” One is from Abraham Lincoln, the “Savior of the Nation.” The third is the quote from the Harry Potter series that is at the top of this column. It may appear out of place with a founding father and our greatest president, but its choice was not accidental. I chose it partly because I believed it would resonate more easily with juveniles, but also as a reminder to the many adults in their lives not to underestimate what those youth are capable of.
The cooperation and communication between the court and our school districts is excellent, not because of any law or regulation, but because we all share a desire to see our youth succeed and a recognition of the incredible things they are capable of.
This year’s Fight Against Hunger Games Thanksgiving meal kit giveaway will be on Tuesday, Nov. 21, from 10:45 a.m. to noon at the Delaware County Byxbe campus (formerly the DACC north) on state Route 521. Pickup starts at 10:45 a.m. and will run until supplies are exhausted.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.