It’s one of the largest delegations in the state, and out of the more than 2,500 students that participate, 120 of them hail from San Pedro High School.
These students, on their weekends, and each Tuesday for six months, are assigned or voted a role in the California government – from senator and assembly member to lawyer and lobbyist and governor – these delegates, as they are called, participate in arguably the most real life club schools have to offer.
The Youth and Government Program, put on by the YMCA, has been providing students the opportunity to participate in the various jobs of government since 1948.
The students, who for their final project take the capitol over for five days this month, do it all; from writing legislation and debating bills to learning public speaking skills, participating in character development activities, and maybe most important, getting involved in various community service projects.
Lauren Fierro, who spent three years as a volunteer with the program before she took over as lead advisor, says the development she sees in the students each year is “mind blowing.”
“I watch the students learn, change and grow into young, educated and passionate adults,” she says. “They realize they have a voice, and more importantly that their voice matters.”
Funded by the San Pedro YMCA and Peninsula YMCA, with help from donations from the community, the Youth and Government Program draws from six different high schools including Palos Verdes and Wilmington, with most students coming from San Pedro High. The delegates meet each Tuesday night at SPHS, and have more students involved that any other YMCA across the state.
In fact, last year’s delegation won the coveted Governor’s Challenge, for being the “most outstanding delegation both inside of the Youth and Government program and inside the community.”
The program across California draws from 90 different delegations, with over 2,500 participants. These students come together and work together three times a year to elect their own government – then participate in the big finale in February, when these elected officials put on their suits and ties and run the capitol building.
Fierro says the students fly into Sacramento on a Wednesday night, check into their hotel rooms, and prepare for the week. “They wake up in the morning, get dressed and go to work,” she says. “They are senators, congressmen, lobbyists and lawyers, and they are treated like adults.”
A senator, for instance, would enter the capitol building on Thursday morning and after a briefing from his staff, would head to the committee meeting and debate laws and legislation. Later in the day, there would be a luncheon or meeting with lobbyists who will argue for or against legislation.
Once the bills pass through the committees, the senator would take the bill to the senate floor and debate the legislations amongst the other senators. Once passed, the bill would move to the Governor’s office, who has his own staff and group of lobbyists and can sign or veto the bill.
“This is absolutely fantastic,” says Fierro. “These kids run the government, they actually do it. There is a research room where they study and research for hours about the bills they are proposing or lobbying for or against. They can run a government, and in some cases run it better than our own government runs it.”
Dru Chavez, a 17 year-old senior at San Pedro High School, says the program has been life changing. Chavez has been involved for two years, and says until he joined Youth and Government he never felt a sense of satisfaction and was always wanting more.
“This is something special,” he says. “It is the place to be, and it has changed my life.”
This month, Chavez will serve as the statewide chaplain, and plans on inspiring his peers through several speeches and invocations. “I think I have one of the best jobs,” he says. “I can be informal and really have the opportunity to meet a lot of people. Last year, I was a senator and sponsored a bill to eliminate the California High School Exit Exam. It passed. I was able to debate on the senate floor, and actually won Senator of the Year – this program is just amazing, and has changed my future.”
Mo Johnson, 17, who ran for Secretary of State last year with plans on becoming the first female President of the United States in the future, says this program has changed the direction of her life.
The San Pedro senior will head to George Washington University in the fall and has already committed to a five-year masters degree program, in addition, to being a member of the row team.
“This is what I love, I found what I love,” she says. “This program helped me find my passion and I couldn’t be more grateful. I want to major in Political Science and eventually run for political office – I am open to anything, but I jokingly say often that I want to be the first female president.”
Johnson, who was elected to the Youth and Government Board of Directors, wants a life in politics and without this program may have never been exposed to it. At a recent conference, where all 2,500 plus delegates joined together in preparation for the Sacramento takeover, Johnson led a Women in Leadership session, as she noticed a discrepancy in the amount of elected women in the program.
She says that women make up 60 percent of the program, but only one in five are elected to high-level positions.
“I have a stake in this program,” she says. “This is my third year, and I have become very invested in not only the time that I have been involved, but the years after I leave. I have a totally different perspective – this is about our youth, our future, this program just floors me.”
Fierro says the program is a place where “we encourage teens to be themselves, step outside of their comfort zones, and appreciate differences in their fellow delegates.”
“It is an all inclusive program,” she continues. “It is a character and leadership focused program. It is not competitive, it is about treating teens like adults and letting them know their voice matters, their opinion matters and they can make a difference.” spt