I made my third visit to the Virginia Youth Leadership Forum at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia in July. I want to tell you about an extraordinary program, group of kids, young staff and a wonderful woman by the name of Teri Barker who directs the program.
Each year Teri brings in twenty to twenty-five students who will be entering their junior or senior year of high school in the fall. All of the students have disabilities of one sort or another; some of them are severely disabled and medically fragile. They have a nurse on staff and five or six extraordinary personal care attendants available at all times to help kids who may need assistance.
Besides the students with disabilities, Teri also has a staff consisting of former delegates, many of whom have been involved with the program for up to eight years. Everyone has his or her assignments and from my perspective, the program appears to run very smoothly. If one were to ask some of the staff members they may get a completely different answer at any given time, especially after they have just put out a small fire.
This year was my third year being at the program and was by far my best experience yet. I can’t wait to go back next year!
Our ride picked us up at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning and took us to Christopher Newport University’s campus. When we got there, Teri, as usual, was there to greet us. Tim got out of the van, and greeted Teri while the lift-equipped van driver unlocked my chair, and began to get me off of the bus.
I started connecting with staff members who I’ve known for two years now. There are many very special people involved in this YLF program and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to know them.
I have spoken at amazing leadership programs all over the country, but none compare to what happens in the week with a small group of individuals at YLF.
First of all, most programs involving young people usually last from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. A lot happens in 48 hours with young leaders in groups of 300 or more high school students! I watch kids come from all parts of the state not knowing anyone and by the time just two short days have gone by, relationships have been made that may last a lifetime. When put in an excellent learning environment, young people surrounded by positive, like-minded individuals grow and develop in ways that are absolutely amazing!
The unique thing about YLF is it runs for five days! It culminates in these students with special needs giving a presentation before members of the Virginia legislature! I have never seen anything like it. When the students arrive on Monday, and are greeted with cheers, applause, hugs and high-fives, they often say that was one of the highlights of their experience on campus.
I spoke with one young lady who told me this was the first time she had ever spent a night away from home. She will be a junior in high school this year and has some very lofty goals. We had a couple of wonderful opportunities to have extended conversations and I believe YLF was something she will never forget. Of course, YLF is something many people never forget.
One of the staff members, Thomas, has been at all three of the programs I’ve attended. He uses a three-wheel scooter to get around, is significantly affected by cerebral palsy, including tight muscle spasms, and a severe speech problem. However, he has a smile that lights up the room!
Two years ago, he and I became fast friends. In the three YLF’s I have attended we’ve made each other laugh more times than I can count. It’s at the point now where all I have to do is look his way, catch his eyes and we both start smiling.
In my address at their mentoring luncheon on Wednesday, I mentioned something about Thomas; he let out a big yell started laughing and practically jumped out of his chair. He doesn’t need to develop character because he is already is one!
On Tuesday night the four groups each put on a skit. Their theme this year was “Learn, Empower, Achieve, Demonstrate – LEAD.” Each group had to work from a scenario and give their version of how that scenario would play out.
Now remember, only two days earlier these young people had shown up on campus knowing no one, many being very shy, and most had never been on stage! They gave four excellent short skits that brought the house down!
One young man, Steven, who has severe cerebral palsy involvement, uses a wheelchair to get around, and a talking board to communicate stole the show when, at the end of their skit, managed to stand up and flex his arms over his head in a bodybuilder type pose. The smile on his face went from ear to ear! As a matter of fact, he did the pose several times. He didn’t want to get off the stage!
In just 48 hours these kids had come from quiet, shy, almost bashful individuals to expressive, cohesive teams performing on stage in what can only be described as heartwarming events.
Tim and I left campus early on Thursday morning to catch our flight back to Minneapolis. While we were loading the students were also boarding buses for their trip to the State Capitol in Richmond where they were to give their testimonies for a panel of Virginia government officials, including legislators from the Virginia Assembly and Senate. They also get a group picture taken with the Governor.
That day is the one I would like to see. I listened to several of the delegates give their testimonies on Wednesday and would love to have seen the students present them at the Capitol.
There’s much more to this story. In fact, there’s an entire chapter in my book “I’m Not Done Yet” devoted to YLF.