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Hands On Lessons In American Government American Legion Boys & Girls State
Tuesday July 15, 2014
By Cookie Steponaitis
The American Legion and American Legion Ladies Auxiliary with a goal of teaching participants, “to learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens,” launched Girls and Boys State in 1935 with programs connected to all states except Hawaii since. High school juniors from across the nation attend each summer and the individual expenses for the teens are paid by local sponsoring units of the American Legion. The week long program is operated by the students elected to different offices and focuses on legislative sessions, court proceedings, assemblies, law-enforcement presentations and has the teens experience American government through active participation. Recently seven Addison County high school juniors, Dana Ambrose, Luke Paquin, Liam Hayes, Erik Eisenhower, Arianna Duprey, Hannah Hatch and Tia Hunt attended Boys & Girls State and shared their experiences.
“When I went to Boy's State I expected it to be a long week that consisted of lectures about our government but I quickly realized it was much more then just that,” explained VUHS senior Dana Ambrose. “We were randomly sorted into towns that had a list of problems to solve as a real town would today. We met with our towns (my town’s name was Snelling) during the morning, broke up into groups and committees and tried to tackle the issues within the town. In the end my town Snelling won model town because we had a handful of the town problems figured out and the most creative but realistic ways to figure those problems out.”
Arianna Duprey shared the Girls State structure and remarked, “Each morning we got together with our town. There were four towns and each town was a mix of girls from all over the state. In our towns we would discuss the rest of the schedule for the day and we could ask our counselors questions. Then we would break into our two parties the Nationalists and Federalists. In the parties we would create a platform that we would support. When people ran for different offices such as treasurer or governor they presented the values that their party had. Then came the hectic time of campaigning. Posters covered every inch of the walls, people would sing rhymes to get you to vote for them, towns cheered on candidates and we all heard some of the best speeches. After the primary election the field of candidates was narrowed down to one candidate from both the Federalists and Nationalists in each position. We then voted again to select who would hold the high positions in Girls State. Afterwards everyone began to split into our committees to work on the bills we would present in the House at the State House.”
The first hand practice of seeing legislation debated and presented was common in the entire experience. Girls State attendee Hannah Hatch shared, “I learned a lot throughout the week at Girls State. I previously had not paid much attention to the way our state government really functions. I knew the general structure but acting as a member of the House of Representatives for a day really gave me a new perspective on what really goes into making state laws. I was in the House of Representatives on the Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. We discussed an act relating to moose permits for veterans which proposed setting aside five moose permits to be distributed to veterans by a lottery system after the lottery for the general public. It passed unanimously in committee and passed on the floor of the House. The House also discussed an act relating to raising the Vermont minimum wage, an act relating to creating two new criminal offenses, bullying and aggravated bullying and an act relating to the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices by public school students." The Senate discussed a bill that proposed making the Attorney General a position appointed by the Governor rather than elected, a bill regarding freedom of expression for students at public schools and a bill that gave motorcyclists older than twenty one the right to ride without a helmet.”
When the week was over, the speeches done, the bills passed and friendships made, all six of the teens felt they had learned valuable lessons not only about themselves but about how American government and citizenship works. “I feel that it is important for people my age to know that the Constitution is still relevant today,” concluded Hannah Hatch. “Many of the bills we discussed at Girls State would affect high school students and other young people. It is important to young people to be educated on the Constitution so they can form educated opinions regarding these issues that affect them.” Arianna Duprey found not only new friendships but a greater sense of herself as an individual leader. Arianna shared, “I came in the first day knowing no one and at the end of the week I had formed many new friendships. Girls State gave me the opportunity to meet some of the nicest people I've ever met. This experience showed me the potential I have; that even if I'm quiet I can be a leader. I also saw the power the everyday citizen has in the United States.” Dana Ambrose took away from the experience a clearer sense of what political parties stand for and how to see the role of citizenry and its application to teens. Dana concluded, “From Boy's State I learned a lot about the political parties and which one would best fit you. I also learned good communication skills and how to be an active citizen in your town as well. This experience showed me how to be an active and participating citizen in our town, something everyone my age should know and do. After all we are the future.”
Programs like Boys & Girls State are often forgotten when the future seems that everything you want to know can be found and learned on the Internet and for these six Addison County teens and the couple of hundred from across the state who attended both Boys & Girls State, the reality is that they are more viable, critical and needed now more than ever before. Citizenry has never been learned through watching a video but by doing and the American political system is best learned from hands on experience. As these teens and their counterparts across the nation take their place as voting members and young leaders of America, the strength of the future lies in the principles and lessons of the past, by doing, learning and seeing that America runs by the works, deeds and actions of the people. Hannah Hatch added as a postscript, “It was amazing that a group of girls my age come together in just four days and create a functioning simulation of our state government.” Hands on democracy and lessons of not what to think but how to think and then act as a citizen of America are the lessons learned at Boys & Girls State. The Valley Voice salutes the teens who attended and the American Legion for sixty-nine years of programs that show each new generation how to be actively engaged and how the U.S. Constitution is more than an aging piece of parchment but a living document waiting for each new generation to interpret, use and protect the freedoms it guarantees.
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