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Future Leaders of America Make a Difference in Montgomery

By Rikki N. Massand | Posted January 25, 2024

Civics is the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. The term derives from the Latin word civicus, meaning “relating to a citizen.” Fourteen Montgomery teens share their experiences as members of the Youth Leadership Council (YLC)—which was essentially a hands-on civics class. Montgomery Deputy Mayor Neena Singh and township information officer Tamara D. Garaffa worked with the students throughout the year.

Deputy Mayor Neena Singh with members of the Youth Leadership Council in December.

The YLC is the brain child of former Montgomery Mayor and NJ Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, who was present at the December 7 Montgomery Township Committee meeting to award certificates to the students. Township Committee members Patricia Todd and Vincent Barragan also participated.

Montgomery High School students Syona Wadhwa and Ekam Bhatia, co-chairpersons of the YLC, gave a powerpoint presentation on how YLC paves a way for students to have representation in their local government. Students also receive volunteer credit hours for township activities in which they participate. This past year, the council engaged in multiple outreach projects to promote pedestrian safety, the Boy Scouts’ Strawberry Festival, and the Earth Day Fair.

Below is a sampling of YLC members and their projects.

Maahi Sethi

Environmental Commission

Sethi participated in local activities to build a greener environment, including an Earth Day fair, a stream cleanup, and Trails Day. “The Environmental Commission (EC) takes everyone’s opinions and views into account. It was apparent they care deeply about the environment. “I’d like to see more litter regulations in the township, including signs,” Sethi said, noting  that the EC should be more visible for the schools’ population. Students would be helpful.

Priya Schult

Veterans Memorial Committee

Schult says she was “totally unaware of how many people from Montgomery fought for our country” until she got involved with YLC. She says she witnessed the dedication of the veteran committee’s volunteers as “every ceremony and event was planned with full respect and consideration for veterans.” Schult helped with the formal dedication of the Killed in Action memorial plaque that now hangs outside of the Montgomery Library. “During my time with the Veterans Committee I learned how to hold township events and how to run a committee. The most important thing I learned was the importance of truly honoring veterans of our community,”she said.

Anya Goel & Ansh Khurana

Shade Tree Committee

Goel and Khurana presented their observations of Montgomery’s Shade Tree Committee. Goel says, “We liked the impact the committee has had on the community, and we enjoyed the seedling wrapping event for Village Elementary School. Kids learned a lot from it.” Khurana thanked the Shade Tree Committee for presenting a model of how township government works and the process for implementing new ideas.

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Cameron Bennett

Recreation Committee

Bennett shared her report on the YLC’s transportation survey and the growing population, including a potential new bus stop in Belle Mead by CVS. She spoke about “how Montgomery can improve its transportation options.” The extension of the NJ Transit 605 bus route, she explained, would improve the ability for more people to take public transportation. “Throughout the YLC program I have heard how we’re working towards improving Montgomery’s walkability.  “Compared to Princeton, which has an 86 percent walkability score, we are at 17 percent,” Bennett said. Montgomery is a car-dependent town. Anshu Cherkumilia also was part of this committee.

Krishan Patel & Jiya Patel

Board of Health

Krishan Patel is a senior at Montgomery High School and he plans to be a pre-med major in college. He is also an EMT with Montgomery EMS. For Patel, the YLC assignment was to follow and participate in the township’s Board of Health, along with fellow YLC student Jiya Patel (no relation). They discussed the goals of equity within healthcare, the “Healthier Somerset” initiative, and ideas promoted by Sustainable Jersey. The Board of Health also discussed the nation’s Opioid Crisis and providing more mental health resources. Krishan Patel says, “This was a great way to learn what’s going on in our local community. I was surprised to learn that the board’s goals aligned with broader county and state objectives. This experience will be a benefit far beyond our college years.”

Camilla Villanueva Castro

Landmarks Preservation

As the YLC liaison to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Castro was able to visit the historic River Road home of commission member Liz Palius  who also founded the Millstone Valley Scenic Byway. Castro learned about the threat of rising floodwaters and climate change impacting historic buildings—including many damaged by Storm Ida in 2021.

Abhitej Kanuri & Steffina Jerald Kannan

Open Space

Kanuri and Kannan talked about their experience with the Open Space Committee. Kanuri said he’s impressed with how well the members know parcels of land and trails of Montgomery, and called that knowledge and understanding of past development one of their biggest strengths in their goals of preserving land.

Giving a Voice to Youth

YLC co-leader Syona Wadhwa thanked Deputy Mayor Singh for following in former Mayor Jaffer’s footsteps in “giving a voice to the youth.” “YLC became a great way for young people to express what’s on their minds and make a difference in Montgomery. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for the YLC,” Wadhwa said.


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