brain drain n. The loss of skilled intellectual and technical labor through the movement of such labor to more favorable geographic, economic or professional environments.

—from the freedictionary.com

First you have to recognize a problem and then you have to develop solutions to deal with it. McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez and the McAllen city commissioners recognized the problem of brain drain in our city. Bright, talented teens leave our community to get their degrees and return only for visits, preferring to stay in cities with “more favorable geographic, economic or professional environments.” They began to ask themselves, what can we do to get them to return to McAllen to live? This desire to plug the drain served as the impetus for the creation of McAllen’s new Teen Advisory Council.

“The number one objective of the city is to attract human capital,” said Cortez. “I wanted to hear from our own young people how they felt about our community and whether they would return after completion of their studies, so I formed the TAC.”

The TAC is comprised of 19 students representing McAllen High School, Memorial High School, Rowe High School, Lamar Academy, McAllen’s Early College High School, Sharyland High School and QUEST Academy. They were chosen by administrators and counselors on their campuses and will serve throughout the 2008-2009 school year. The McAllen City Commission will formalize the appointment process for future TACs at an upcoming meeting.

At the group’s first meeting on November 4, 2008, Cortez welcomed the appointees and explained the idea behind the council’s formation. Assistant City Manager Wendy L. Smith oversees the group.

“The purpose of the TAC is two-fold,” Smith said. “One, to provide advice to the mayor and city commission on how to keep our young people in the community during or after college, and two, to participate in public service projects.”

TAC meetings are held once a month and last one hour because the city knows the members are pulled in many directions.

“Time is always a challenge,” Smith said. “These kids are among the brightest and busiest in their respective schools, but they manage to dedicate enough time to the council to make projects happen.” Smith drafts their agendas, guides them in running the meetings and facilitates city resources needed to complete their projects, but the chairman of the council runs the meetings.

That chairman is Mark Hanna, a senior at McAllen High School who is also the president of McHi’s student council. Hanna, chosen to serve on the council by McHi’s head counselor, Sara Nellie Garza, was selected to serve as chairman by his fellow TAC members at their second meeting. He said he never realized how much work goes into running a city. His second revelation was the idea that he might actually want to return to McAllen after he graduates from college.

At the council’s first meeting, Mayor Cortez delivered an impassioned speech about McAllen and the city commission’s desire to attract young people so the city’s future will look as bright, or brighter, than the present. Cortez’s speech hooked Hanna, who had never considered returning to McAllen. Hanna will pursue a bachelor’s in international business at Northwood University in Cedar Hill and a master’s in entrepreneurship. Now he plans to return to McAllen and says his newest goal is to one day serve as mayor of the city he once planned to bid farewell.

For now, Hanna’s focus is on running the TAC. The group has identified their top five goals: 1) to get area youth more involved in the city; 2) to GO GREEN!; 3) to make McAllen attractive so young people will return after they graduate from college; 4) to create a safe and fun place where youth can hang out and get help with school work and preparation for college entrance exams and 5) to help make McAllen THE place to live.

Hanna is happy the mayor and city commission put their plan to invest in human capital into motion. “I feel this group is important to McAllen because it gives the city an additional point of view,” he said, “a view from the youth, who are the city’s future.”

The TAC has already begun to formulate a plan to address their top five goals. At their December meeting, they heard a presentation by McAllen’s Recycling Manager, Ouina Rutledge. She spoke to the group about recycling and its environmental and economic benefits for the city. She also explained the benefits of compost and the city’s efforts to increase its use and told the TAC members about the Construction and Demolition (C & D) Plan that will require the recycling of all unused materials on construction sites.

This inspired a spirited discussion among the group about increasing the city’s Blue Bin Recycling Program in our schools and public facilities, such as the mall and the airport. Rutledge touted Gonzalez Elementary School in McAllen as a leader in recycling and said she plans to meet with the new MISD superintendent in the spring about strengthening the program throughout the district. TAC member Robert Mendez, a student at Lamar Academy, urged the group to put their words about recycling efforts into immediate action.

TAC members also discussed the idea of displaying student artwork at the McAllen Convention Center and getting involved in the city’s Music Afterhours Outdoor Concert Series, sponsored by the city and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. Held the third Friday of each month at the convention center, this program features local bands and provides a safe and fun environment for area youth. Hanna encourages all young people in our area to get involved by attending city-sponsored events and joining the TAC’s volunteer efforts.

Smith can’t wait to see what’s ahead. “I love the kids’ enthusiasm,” she said. “They are incredibly creative, and their energy permeates every meeting. It reminds me why I chose local government as a career.”

McAllen residents will be hearing a lot from the TAC in the coming months. Be listening for what TAC member Janelle Dougherty from Memorial High School refers to as “the voice of the youth.”