ST. PARIS – A group of Graham High School students were the first students from a Champaign County school to participate in a YMCA program aimed at giving students first-hand experience about government.
Twelve students from Graham High School visited the Ohio Statehouse in March as part of the YMCA’s Youth in Government program.
The program dates back to the late 1930s and is a national program of the YMCA. Teenagers meet in local clubs throughout the year to discuss and debate issues affecting residents in their state. The program culminates with teens serving as delegates at a state conference debating bills on the floor of the legislature.
Champaign Family YMCA CEO Paul Waldsmith said a lot of Ohio’s current state legislators got exposure to government through the program.
Waldsmith said three years ago part-time staffer Cate Brinnon organized a similar program based at the YMCA, but not at the schools.
“We tried that for a year, year-and-a-half and tried to see if we could get some traction,” Waldsmith said. “She did a really nice job with the program but because it wasn’t in the school we just didn’t have enough continued interest to keep it going so the program sat dormant in Champaign County until earlier this year when I was able to get Graham to be conceptually interested.”
Graham High School teacher Carrie Traylor, who teaches world history and is in charge of the Graham Online Achievement Lab, said the process started last December with Graham High School Principal Ryan Rismiller asking if she would be interested in taking students through the program.
As she looked up requirements for the program, Traylor realized the deadline had passed. The school contacted Charlie Meyers who heads the program for the state.
“He came and met with us towards the end of January, early February and allowed us to get a group of students to preview the Youth in Government program,” Traylor said. “The YMCA sponsored all of the students and they didn’t have to pay as high of a fee to be able to preview what was going on. Graham students this year participated in every single aspect of Youth in Government except for the fact that they did not write bills.”
Traylor said next year the plan is for students to write bills which will be presented to committees and to state legislature.
In order to get the 12 students who participated in the program this year, Traylor said recommendations were taken from social studies and English teachers.
“Graham was the first Champaign County school to have an in-school program, they were certainly the first school to participate at our statehouse and go through the Youth in Government assembly,” Waldsmith said.
The group of students went to the statehouse on March 22 through 24.
“I think it’s very important to have an education on all levels of government and to have a basic understanding of how things work in their day-to-day operations,” Traylor said. “I think that’s what makes you a productive member of society. If you know the process that occurs it makes you an informed citizen, a better voter.”
Traylor said the program was about learning government procedures but also about learning how to be public speakers and learning how to support things students are passionate about.
“The transformation I saw in these 12 students from the day we got there to the last day was very impressive,” Traylor said. “I saw students on Thursday when we were there not quite sure if they wanted to jump in and say something and kind of support what they believed in to the very last day in the whole entire group with 300-plus students they’re standing up going against a bill that they really disliked which was against the majority and they were 100 percent confident in standing up speaking against what the majority of the people in the room were advocating for.
“To see that transformation for me as a teacher was the biggest compliment to this program to be able to see that change in who they were becoming as individuals.”
Speaking on their statehouse experience, sophomore Owen McGuffey said being able to sit in the statehouse and see the process of passing a bill was a favorite experience.
“I had learned in the classroom the fundamental basis and idea of what was going on but this trip helped me gain a new perspective of just everything that goes on in the statehouse,” sophomore Alexis Lewis said.
“I thought it was really interesting to see the differences between rural and urban life because we live in a small town kind of out in the middle of the cornfield,” freshman Lexi Traylor said. “To see what people from inner-city schools see in their day-to-day lives and what they want changed compared to what we want and how on the state level you have to consider both sides of the spectrum.”
Waldsmith said the students who participated in the program this year were freshmen and sophomores and he envisions Graham will stay involved with the program in the future. He asked any Champaign County school with interest in the program to contact him.
“The Youth in Government program has grown considerably in Ohio in the last three years which is wonderful because it means more high school students from across the state are involved in these hands-on opportunities,” Waldsmith said. “Students who go to the statehouse are running for office, coming up with laws and basically participating in different layers of governance.”