By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Not too many years ago, Brett Johnson, then a Hokes Bluff high school student, went to a meeting to hear about a YMCA program called Youth in Government, mainly to get out of class.
The meeting, and his subsequent involvement in the program changed his life, Johnson said.
He became president of Hokes Bluff’s club, and joined with other students from schools in Etowah County in writing legislation, debating it in the state’s capitol, and seeing some of the student-drafted bills actually become state law.
And Johnson saw his previous dream of being an athletic trainer pass away. His goal now he said, is public service in the political arena and he’s getting a good start. After being involved in some campaigns, Johnson said, he got to know Alabama House Minority Leader Craig Ford, and at age 18, got a job as Constituent Services Director for Ford. Johnson also is a student at Jacksonville State University and is active in the Student Government Association.
Johnson, and 2013 Gaston graduate Amy Sims are veterans of YIG and were on hand to speak to students involved in the program at an organizational meeting at the YMCA. Several students attended and Johnson and Sims are eager to recruit students for the program’s 7th and 8th grade program, that takes them to Montgomery for a day, and the 9-12th grade program, that will take students to the capitol for a weekend.
Sims said the program has given her opportunities she never expected, and she guaranteed them they will get far more out of the program than they put into it.
The program brings students together to research issues and draft legislation that they must debate and defend before students from across the state on the House floor.
During YIG weekend in Montgomery, Sims explained, delegates from each county elect officers that mirror the state government and the state judicial system. Cabinet members are selected, she said; she served as Director of the state Corrections System for two years and Superintendent of Education another.
Sims said she was able to shadow those state officials and learn first-hand about their jobs. There also is fun: a dance for high school participants, and the chance to debate some bills that are funny, such as a recent bill that would have required everyone to build a shelter for the zombie apocalypse.
Other student-sponsored legislation is more serious and is taken seriously. The recent law requiring Alabama residents to show proof of insurance when they obtain a car tag got its start in the student legislature, as did the law against texting while driving.
In addition to having the ear of state government, YIG has its support as well. Heidi D’Arbo, the YMCA advisor for the program said She said Ford has supported the program with funding and by providing pizza for events such as last week’s meeting.
Johnson and Sims plan to be involved in advising in the YIG program in the coming year. At some schools, the SGA sponsor or government teacher works with students in YIG, but at some schools, involvement is less organized – and it doesn’t have to be. Several Gaston students attended the organizational meeting, but only one Southside student, along with a home-schooled student from the Southside area.
Johnson and Sims, and Heidi D’Arbo, membership director at the Y, encouraged all the students to tell their friends about the program and encourage them to get involved.
Participants will meet monthly at the YMCA.
For more information about the program, visit www.alyig.org or contact Heidi D’Arbo at the YMCA.