A Lesson in Youth-Led Innovation through Service

Our bright future lives today in the hands of youth who volunteer to make a difference. I have been fortunate to witness youth impact many times in my thirty-year teaching career and background in volunteering. This is the story of one student leader who rose to a challenge and made a difference through volunteering.  

I served as an adult facilitator in the early spring of 2014 with YMCA Youth In Government (YIG), a national experience in state government for middle and high school students. The brilliance of this program is that it moves government education from bookwork to hands-on learning.    Through the program, youth role-play various positions, such as Governor, legislators and lobbyists in the actual State Capitol.  One of the unexpected leadership moments during this time made the greatest impression on me. 

An Overwhelming Task

Assigned to the Lobbyist Program, I facilitated youth efforts to inform their peers in the legislature at every step in the law-making process. In an effort to keep up to speed with the lightning pace of simulated legislation and the constant need to know more about a topic, the student lobbyists felt overwhelmed. I knew from experience the tedious work of looking through paper records passed from a committee to the floor, keeping track of everything, often too late for lobbyists to insert themselves in the process. 

A legislator and their staff cannot possibly know everything about every bill that crosses their path. Lobbyists provide an essential function in assuring the voices of experts are heard when the leaders are debating legislation. To do this, they rely on real-time information about where a bill sits in the process. If they had ready access to the status of bills, they could use their time communicating perspectives for the good of the people rather than hunting down where a bill stands.   

An Elegant Solution

A student, Ryan Rosenthal, understood this process and the importance of accessible information for a lobbyist. He suggested putting all this bill paperwork into a searchable Google Doc so that the lobbyist could track the status of a bill in real-time. I sat down with Ryan and some friends of his as they brainstormed what that would look like. 

In a few days, Ryan had organized several web-accessible forms in Google Docs that I then took to the people running Michigan’s YIG program. Ryan made his case for using Google Docs at the next conference in late spring. They agreed to pilot Ryan’s online tracking documents with smartphone access for all conference attendees. After one day of using paper alongside Ryan’s Google Docs, the program administrators dropped the paper forms.

This ongoing challenge for lobbyists was solved by a student who used time and creativity to look from a different perspective. His creative solution became available to all, a universal design that enhanced every future student’s experience. The next year, Ryan returned to see his Google Docs up and running and students talking about their own tweaks to improve the setup. Ryan accomplished all of this as a volunteer.

Volunteering Sparks Change

This is one example of a student leading change for the greater good because of an experience as a volunteer. The volunteer experience opens opportunities to develop purpose in life, leadership skills, self-worth, and other personal paybacks. At the same time, they leave this world a bit better than they found it.

We need to encourage volunteering and youth leadership. As adult facilitators, we provide connections and trust, we support and listen, and then we get out of their way and let them make a difference. Standing back does not make one less of a professional educator. In fact, we are so much more when youth take the lead: We are teachers. 

About Stephen and Ryan

Stephen Weatherholt, M.Ed., TC, has worked with individuals with learning disabilities and cognitive impairments for over thirty years with the Taylor School District.  He has also volunteer for organizations from land conservancy to fundraising for the Children’s Foundation, dedicated to three core pillars: Community Benefit, Pediatric Research and Medical Education.   

Ryan recently graduated with a Juris Doctor and Master’s degree from The George Washington University. Since moving to D.C., he has started “The Burn Bag,” a foreign policy podcast that features conversations with leading thinkers, policymakers, and practitioners. Ryan looks forward to starting his career at the U.S Department of the Treasury this fall, where he will work on investment security policy.