Peninsula teens look to the future, hoping pandemic is behind them


HAMPTON, VA. (WAVY) — The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us. But how about our teenagers?

10 On Your Side talked with some members of the youth commissions in Newport News and Hampton. They reflected on how COVID-19 has affected them, their families, and their future.

Paul Karhnak, chairman of the Hampton Youth Commission, recently graduated from Hampton High School. One thing that didn’t suffer during months away from campus was his sense of humor.

“I know people get a kick out of it when we say “The” Hampton High School, but we really do have to let them know that it is “The” Hampton High School where the legacy of excellence continues,” he said.

Now a proud graduate, Karhnak, is breathing a sigh of relief after a frustrating college application process. He says he applied to 11 colleges and only heard good news from three.

“I was accepted by Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia,” he said.

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UVA-bound Karhnak and some other members of the Hampton and Newport News youth commissions now look back on how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed them.

“Before the pandemic, my biggest goal was to go to college out of state,” said Kyra Reed, also of Hampton High. “But, because of the pandemic, it’s made me realize that I really enjoy spending time with my family.”

Isable Kirabo was not a big fan of studying at home, along with a working mother and brother who were also on computers.

“I struggled a lot with finding the motivation to just continue with school. It’s something that I’m still adjusting to,” she said.

For Andrew Pexton of Phoebus High, the pandemic hit home.

“Two of my family actually did have COVID-19. They’ve all successfully recovered, thankfully,” he said.

On the upside, Pexton found ways to use all the free time.

“[It] has caused me to be more creative and to learn new skills such as guitar and writing,” he said.

Yenelis Jones of the Mayor’s Youth Commission (MYC) in Newport News says this pandemic year has helped her regroup and refocus while away from Woodside High’s campus.

“I didn’t have the drama that came with the fights in the hallways, I didn’t have to worry about not having a partner to work with in class,” said Jones.

Another Woodside student and MYC member, Te’Ari Combs, may have enjoyed time away from campus a little too much.

“I feel like, my first time doing virtual school, I did enough, but I could do better if it were to come again,” Combs said.

Deja Smith, an MYC member from Menchville High, did not let the pandemic or virtual classes stop her community activism.

“I did participate in some of the protests of Black Lives Matter,” she said, referring in particular to the protests marking the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

“I think we’re getting better because their stories are being broadcast and people are learning more about them, and people are being held accountable,” Smith said.

Smith plans to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond next fall.

As members of the youth commissions in Newport News and Hampton, these teens regularly advised council members on issues important to them. Mental health was high on the list. They’re hoping to make counseling and treatment for struggling teens more readily available. Returning members plan to pick up that baton next year.

If you know a teen that might be interested in government and the political process in Newport News and Hampton, contact the respective youth commissions for volunteer opportunities.

Click here for information on the youth commission in Newport News.

Click here for information on the youth commission in Hampton.

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