If you noticed more young people than usual in downtown Columbia this week, that’s because it was Youth in Government Week at the State House.
About 2,100 students from 44 schools throughout South Carolina converged on the State House to learn about government by creating their own.
“Teaching young people about democracy and helping them find their voice, there’s almost nothing more important in helping youth development and social responsibility,” said Mary Capers Bledsoe, Executive Director of the South Carolina YMCA Youth in Government Teen Services Branch.
The Youth In Government program is organized through the YMCA of Greenville. South Carolina is third behind Kentucky and Texas for the number of kids who participate. This is the 30th year kids have participated in Youth in Government in South Carolina and this year was a record turnout.
“They’re learning democracy,” Capers Bledsoe said. “They’re seeing that our systems work and our democracy works but they’re also learning that it works only if everyone participates. They’re finding their voice.”
Capers considered this the premiere academic field trip in South Carolina.
They elect their own Senators and Representatives then draft, debate and pass bills. Some also gathered for mock trials.
“I discovered a passion for politics I didn’t know I had,” said Ian Rutledge, who participated in the program as a student and is now employed with the YMCA Youth In Government program.
“The first time I walked into the State House and looked up and I saw the ornate nature of the building and I was just overwhelmed at how awesome it was,” he said. “How cool, I thought it was, that I could step into the shoes of the state legislators and thinking in my head, this is something that I could do with my life.”
Among the bills presented in the Senate: allowing prisoners on death row to donate their organs, a tax on the sale of diesel fuel to pay for road repairs and legalizing gambling.
“You learn about how to work with other individuals on issues of importance and you learn about public speaking,” Rutledge said. “You learn about networking with other individuals because you’re meeting students from all across the state.”
Hammond School Senior Cameron Obioha has been attending since he was in the eighth grade.
“The level of intelligence, the level of passion that’s here at Youth in Government is something that has never truly been seen before. I think that it’s so, so special. It’s been special to me,” he said.
And Obioha plans to take what he’s learned here into his career: politics, music, wherever life takes him.
“Sometimes when we go and listen to the news that we usually listen to, we get one side of the story, but I think that we need to be able to do is hear all the sides and be able to have a broad horizon so we can understand the full spectrum of things,” he said.
565 middle school students from 18 schools attended. 1,560 students from 36 high schools participated. Capers said she would like to see every school participate in the program eventually, and the YMCA provides scholarship assistance to schools and students who need it.