By Solymar Estrella, BGCSDC Alum and Intern
One of the pillars of The Club is advocacy. We strive to instill in young people not only the tools they need to advocate for what they believe in, but the tools they need to advocate for themselves. The future starts to look brighter when young people have the capacity to be passionate storytellers and advocates. Advocacy plays an especially important role in the lives of teens. Ava, a member of Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties' Youth Council, states that because of the advocacy lessons provided at the Club, “I feel confident in my own voice. I believe I can advocate for topics that are important to me, however large the scale, and be sure that I am heard. I wouldn’t be as proficient a speaker or be able to deliver my message as well as I can without the skills I’ve learned from my Club’s advocacy programs. Because of The Club, I can effectively advocate on behalf of those who lack a platform to do so and can be a strong voice in my community.” Recently, nine teens from Youth Council and Advocacy 101 programs, two Club staff, and two Club alumni traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Summit of America’s Youth (SAY). This opportunity was made possible by our partnerships with Family Dollar and BGCA under the Think, Learn, Create Change initiative, which provided BGCSDC with a grant in recognition of successful advocacy projects like the Mental Health Summit. SAY describes itself as a summit to “raise the level of discourse for all youth, equipping them to not only join but also productively lead the conversation so that their issues are heard and represented in the nation’s halls of power.” At SAY, our Club teens had the chance to advocate for the Club and our mission of providing safe places for youths to learn, grow, and create the future.
During this four-day summit, teens from all over the nation joined to share their stories, learn more about being advocates, and demonstrate what it means to be a Club kid. Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and Desoto Counties members Gigi and Jorge received invitations to be a part of the planning committee for the summit and were also chosen to take on roles throughout the summit. Gigi, one of our current teens at the Club, was selected to be a Social Ambassador; she served on a panel, created content for the summit, and acted as a leader throughout SAY. Jorge, a Club Alumni, 2021 Southeast Youth of Year, and a current student at Columbia University, served as a Youth Ambassador, a role that involved co-hosting a panel and meeting the First Lady, Jill Biden.
Teens were introduced to the beauty and history of Washington, D.C. by taking part in a Smithsonian experience and participating in a nighttime monument tour (which many members list as their most notable memory of SAY 2023). During their day on Capitol Hill, the teens spent time with our legislators where, as Ethan describes it, they “were able to talk to two House Representatives and their staffers from District 17 and 18, Representative Greg Steube and Scott Franklin. We also met with Senator Marco Rubio’s staffer and Senator Rick Scott. In each of these meetings, we told our Congressmen about the Club and everything that our Club has offered us, from entrepreneurship and leadership programs to college mentoring and even emotional support. We extended each Congressman a warm invitation to visit our Club and asked for their support during the next fiscal year to allow our Club to continue providing for local youth.”
These experiences, like the ones throughout SAY, last a lifetime; traveling with friends, meeting like-minded people, and making a difference are memories our members will hold forever. As Xinyi explains, “attending the Summit for America’s Youth was transformative. From the very first night in D.C., when I had to step out of my shell to give elevator pitches and share with Club members from around the country more about my Club’s programs, I was given the opportunity to make a lasting impression. At first, I struggled to organize my thoughts and was nervous I might forget the talking points I had prepared. But, after a few pitches, I began to improve. Each repetition brought me more confidence – allowing me to hold better eye contact and engage with the audience more. Although I found it challenging, I also found it rewarding, and I know I will feel much more comfortable tackling similar situations in the future.”
Our teens took so much away from SAY 2023; the lessons, memories, and experiences here will help shape their future. Nathan, our 2023 Youth of the Year, states that his main takeaway from SAY was coming to the realization that “my generation is no longer in the "waiting line” to represent ourselves in government. We are not even on a “cusp” of taking power. We are ready to make the changes we desperately want to be implemented in our changing world.” The Summit for America's Youth helped our teens recognize their true potential, gave them the tools they needed to effect change, and inspired them to strive for a brighter future.