The co-chairwoman of the Essex CHIPs board of directors is busy.
In late December, Dominique Sweat was at a youth mental health and first aid training for professionals working with young people.
The thing is, she’s young herself.
Sweat is just 17. “It’s a further testament to her commitment to the community and doing good things,” Essex CHIPS executive director David Voegele said.
CHIPS stands for Community Health Initiative Programs for Students and is a nonprofit operating in Essex Jct. that focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles and substance-free living with youth.
Sweat attended the non-profit’s tween and teen center from fourth through eighth grade and was preparing for high school when then-executive director Diana Ferguson suggested she join the board as a youth member.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what a board of directors is. I don’t really know what that means,’” Sweat said.
Before entering into her sophomore year, Sweat joined the board and found the work more fun and less “fancy” and “formal” than she expected.
“It’s a lot of making sure you have the funds to keep the doors open,” she said, as well as soliciting food donations and sponsorships for events the organization hosts in the community.
Sweat said she’s proud of creating “long-lasting” relationships between CHIPS and community members, including parents, teachers, principals and local businesses and organizations.
“I don’t just ask them for one thing and be like, ‘Here, you’ll get your name printed on a T-shirt,’” she said. “It’s not just a single conversation.”
Sweat frequently talks with donors about her own experiences attending CHIPS after school and how she developed a bond with staff and volunteers through games, crafts and community service.
She called this bond the “CHIPS family” and said her experiences there changed the meaning of what a mentor is and can be.
“The staff there and the volunteers there really changed my life,” Sweat said.
Sweat brings this personal impact to her work on the board. She said she knows how something as simple as providing kids with a healthy snack can mean so much.
The small day-to-day accomplishments, as well as getting positive feedback from parents in the community, make her feel valued and accomplished.
Sweat also is the senior volunteer in the teen and tween center after school twice a week and works 25 hours a week at a job in Essex.
She also participates in the CHIPS’ Above the Influence meet up group and Adventure Orientation program every summer, and is currently joining the CHIPS’ community engagement committee and policy review committee.
Sweat said fellow board members don’t treat her differently because of her age or status as a youth member, noting it’s common for them to question her ideas and push back, as they would their own peers.
CHIPS is unique in having a mixed board, which includes five youth members, and really proves it can walk the walk as a youth advocate organization.
“That’s really in our mission – to value youth and create leaders out of youth,” Sweat said.
Sweat is interested in creating a safe place for youth to “embrace” themselves, especially when they don’t feel safe in the classroom or at home.
“If they go to a place where they feel safe, they’re are going to be themselves, they’re going to be more willing to learn,” she said.
Now a senior at Essex High School, Sweat is drawn to the social sciences and psychology. She likes to dance, paint, draw, listen to music, edit small films and is currently learning the ukulele. She’s thinking about earning an associate’s degree from the Community College of Vermont after high school, then applying to a state university.
Asked if she considers herself a leader, Sweat said she doesn’t like to speak highly of herself.
“There are a lot of leaders in this community,” she said.