I stood on the stage of my high school theater — Alleman High School — and the experiences of the character I am portraying seemed to align with mine. I’m playing Medda Larkin in our production of “Newsies.” My character is on a mission to protect and empower the New York City newsboys in their fight for justice.

I deeply relate to Medda’s passion for giving others a voice. For me, that means standing firmly with young Quad Citizens as they claim a bright future. That’s why I’m thrilled to have opportunities like — and be a member of — the Quad Cities Community Foundation Teens for Tomorrow Program (T4T). Through T4T, students like myself learn about community needs, identify opportunities we can fund, evaluate grant applications, make site visits, and award a total of $10,000 in grants. Along the way, we get to experience how philanthropy can transform our community forever.

As a young woman in the Quad-Cities, I am energized and refreshed when an adult sincerely seeks my opinion, my input, and my voice. And if our community is going to engage our youth, it will take relationships. That is why programs like T4T are so important. We don’t just get a say in the process, we develop relationships and get the final word — and that speaks volumes.

We are valued. And we are trusted … because we are capable.

Our community focuses time and resources to attract and retain individuals, businesses, and families that help us thrive as a community. I am convinced one of the best ways to do this is to partner with people of all ages. Sometimes youth are let off the hook. Some may say our problems are too serious, too complicated, or too out of reach for teens to make a difference. That is not true. What if we equipped youth with the tools and resources to tackle our community challenges?

I try to be purposeful in my pursuit to serve my community, and participate in other efforts that make a difference, like “LOVE Girls” magazine and Closet2Closet, both of which were started by teens. The Penguin Project, which offers a platform for children with disabilities to perform in a full-length musical, is engaging young people like myself in ways that are meaningful—and make a difference. Think about how much could get done if more teens were engaged and empowered to make a difference.

When the community truly engages young people, we are more invested in the Quad-Cities, and feel welcome to stay and be part of the ongoing conversation. That’s what we all want isn’t it? To belong. That is why I created an organization called Picture Empowerment. Through my love of photography, my organization provides free photography sessions and pictures to those who can’t afford it. The simple process of being photographed — someone else taking the time to hone in on what makes you beautiful and unique — is empowering.

For the teens I photograph, my message to them is simple: We are the future of a community we love and respect. So, let’s speak up. Let’s serve. Let’s do it with vigor and enthusiasm. And much like Medda — that fierce champion for the “Newsies”— let’s not miss a single opportunity to be part of the solution.

Elena Vallejo is a senior at Rock Island Alleman High School.