Youth Leadership Forum – Easter Seals
By Becky Rizoli, Staff Member, FCSN
On July 14, 15, and 16, 2015, I participated in the Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) at Bridgewater State University. The forum was run by Easter Seals, and this year the Federation for Children with Special Needs was a Collaborator. It allowed youth with disabilities to connect and learn about becoming leaders in their own lives.
Over 50 high school students attended the forum as delegates. Older youth, who had graduated high school and had served as delegates twice in the past, served as peer leaders. The youth went to workshops on topics such as transition to adult life, the disability rights movement, and self-advocacy and self-determination. The youth stayed in the dorms and ate meals in the cafeteria. This way, they got a taste of what it was like to live on campus, which was a first-time opportunity for many of them.
I attended the forum as a staff captain. Staff captains were the adult leaders who served as support to the peer leaders and helped ensure that everything ran smoothly. I also presented a workshop called “Achieving Dreams.” I began by telling the youth that I had always dreamed of being an author; and that I achieved my dream in October 2013. That was when my memoir “Distracted Girl” was published. I mentioned it as an example of how my dream came true and to let them know that they can achieve their dreams as well.
I asked the youth for some of their own dreams that they wanted to achieve. Several youth gave answers such as wanting to go to college, to own a business, and to pursue a career in music. I went on to explain the process of self-determination and self-advocacy. I ended my presentation by saying, “You’re not weird, crazy, or abnormal. You’re just outside the box, because the box is too small to contain all your awesomeness.”
The forum also provided the youth opportunities to socialize and connect with each other. There was a dance one night, and an open mic another night. Several of the young people proved to be quite talented at singing, rapping, impersonating cartoon characters, and stand-up comedy. Friendships were formed as the youth made connections with each other and realized they were not alone.
As I reflect on my time at YLF, I feel extremely hopeful for the next generation. I went to YLF thinking that I would inspire the youth. Now that I am back, I realize that they inspired me just as much. I was inspired by their ambition, their drive, their strengths, their eagerness to participate, and their desire to become the leaders of tomorrow.
I also encourage youth to take part in a future YLF, particularly if they have not done so in the past. YLF offers a safe, supportive, and fun community for youth with all disabilities: physical, intellectual, autism, sensory, emotional, ADHD, learning disabilities, and mental illnesses. Some of the youth attend four year colleges upon graduating from high school, some attend two year colleges, and some do not go to college. Unlike other situations where they had been exclusively among other youth with disabilities; YLF is not a stigmatizing environment, but an empowering one. Most of the staff members are also people with disabilities, which gives the youth a sense of optimism for their futures.
To get more information on YLF, go to: http://www.easterseals.com/ma/shared-components/document-library/youth-leadership.pdf