More than 2,100 South Carolina students converged on Columbia for the 31st annual Youth In Government Model Legislature and Court last week. The Statehouse event is the third-largest in the country and saw record turnout this year.
“It provides young people the opportunity to learn not just about government but their place in civic life,” SC YMCA Youth in Government executive director Mary Capers Bledsoe said. “We know that government and democracy only work if we participate.”
The YUSA signature program is managed by the Teen Services branch of the YMCA of Greenville. The YMCA makes sure that any student interested in participating can do so, providing support to schools and scholarships.
Some of those students are already applying what they learn in Columbia to real life. The elected lieutenant governor of the youth government, Bluffton High School senior John Acker, managed one political campaign at 16 years old and helped to get two of his area state representatives re-elected a year later.
“All of my knowledge was from the West Wing and Madame Secretary — all the TV shows that I binge watch,” he said.
“I learned everything on the fly. I had to file ethics reports with the ethics commission, press releases, talking points, position papers and really everything,” Acker described his experience managing Bluffton Town Councilman Larry Toomer’s re-election campaign. “That springboarded into a county council race. (State Representatives) Weston Newton (R – Bluffton) and Bill Herbkersman (R- Bluffton) are two mentors of mine and I helped them win their re-election.”
Acker said the campaigns taught him much more than what he learned from his favorite television shows. He plans to study political science next year at either The Citadel or the University of South Carolina.
“The most important thing you can do is to involve yourself,” he said. “To be in the know about issues. To feel like you’ve been heard is to involve yourself. I look at voter turnouts and my heart breaks. Ten percent, 20 percent. We should have 100 percent turning out to vote.”
Acker’s Bluffton High School classmate Maile Paulmeier was the first female from the Lowcountry to be elected governor of the 2018 Model Legislature. In the four years that she’s participated in Youth in Government, she’s noticed that the students do not align themselves by party or political platform.
“Rather than recognizing party lines and the whole entire topic of political polarization being so relevant in our society today, we don’t recognize any of that,” she said of her fellow participants. “We don’t have a single division line here. We don’t have a single title. It is just compromise.”
Students elect a complete state legislative government, from legislators to governor. They write, debate and vote on legislation. Other students participate in mock trials.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned here is that we can work, no matter your differences or beliefs or where you come from,” she said. “We want to find the best solution to solve an issue that we all face at the end of the day.”
Paulmeier applied early to Stanford and will find out next month if she has been accepted to the Science, Technology and Society program there.
Although the Youth in Government program gets assistance every year from past participants, this year they sent a social media request to graduates to serve as judges for the mock trials.
“We have lots of alumni who come back and help us,” Capers Bledsoe said.
Chickasaw City Councilman Adam Bourne volunteered as a mock trial presiding judge for the entire conference. An attorney from Atlanta who participated in Youth in Government back in the late 1980s and early 1990s also volunteered as a judge.
Acker wants to return to the Statehouse some day, too.
“One day I’d like to be the governor,” he said.
In keeping with its mission to never turn anyone away who wants to participate, regardless of ability to pay, YMCA of Greenville offers scholarships through its annual campaign and foundation Jane & Robert Coleman Endowment Fund for Youth in Government and Christopher Brian Capps Memorial Fund. Click here for more information.