Representing the LINK Center at the Youth Leadership Forum
By Becky Rizoli, Information / Outreach Specialist, FCSN
On July 11-13, 2017, I had the honor and pleasure of attending the Massachusetts Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) as a Staff Captain for the third summer in a row. The YLF is an annual conference for youth with disabilities who are transitioning to adulthood, and it is held at Bridgewater State University. Students who have just completed their junior or senior year in high school attend as delegates, and older youth who have completed at least one year of college or employment attend as peer leaders. The youth and most of the staff stay overnight in the dorms, and for many of the youth, this is their first time staying away from home. It gives them a chance to experience living in a dorm before they actually attend college. The forum includes several workshops and sessions on disability rights history, self-advocacy, self-determination, disability pride, adaptive sports and theater games, choosing a career, assistive technology, voting, and other topics that are helpful to the youth.
There is also plenty of time for fun, including video games, a drum circle/jam session, and a dance party. The youth also have a chance to participate in a talent show, where they show off their abilities at singing, dancing, telling jokes, rapping, playing a musical instrument, or impersonating cartoon characters. This activity is a major confidence booster; many of the youth are performing in front of a live audience for the first time, and feel encouraged by the applause and positive feedback from their peers.
Every time I attend YLF, I go with the expectation that I will share many of the lessons that I have learned over the years about living with a disability. However, each time, I wind up learning even more from the youth than they learn from me. I am always moved and inspired to see them make new friendships and grow in confidence and pride over the three days together. They stop being ashamed of their disability, and become empowered by learning that they aren’t alone and that they are now part of a community that celebrates their differences.
While the youth are often sad to leave, they return home with a new sense of pride and a greater ambition to work hard at overcoming obstacles and to make the world a better place for all, especially those with disabilities. Many can’t wait to return the following year!