By Laura Reinhardt at the Youth Empowerment Program Summit in Washington, D.C.
I’m a heat wimp. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The Pacific Northwest has spoiled me with its relatively cool and humidity-free summers. But for the past four summers, I’ve found myself in our nation’s capital, dealing with heat and humidity that can knock you over. And honestly, there’s no place I’d rather be. I’m here for World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Program Summit. It’s like a family reunion of young people from across the country.
[Ed. note: Here are some of Laura’s photos from the summit]
They been through some of the toughest things I’ve ever heard about—certainly things beyond my high school experience. When I was in high school, it was shocking when a classmate got pregnant. I never worried that I might not make it home from school like young people do in some urban areas these days. Smoking cigarettes in the bathroom was about as rough as it got in my rural high school. Now, youth in rural areas face rampant prescription-drug abuse and alcoholism among their peers.
But these teens want to make a difference. They’re dedicated to it. They spent two evenings a week or a Saturday morning for the past 20 weeks meeting with their teammates. They focused on their community’s assets and problems, then picked one problem on which to focus. Now they’re here to meet with their members of Congress. They’ll attend workshops by nationally renowned speakers.
But they’re also here to connect with each other. Some of them have attended for the past three or four years—that’s where the family reunion aspect comes in. Many are eager to see friends they made last year or the year before.
I’ve gotten to watch some of these teens grow up, find their voices, and become ready to step up and make a change. In my job, my interviews and stories often capture a moment in time. But with this assignment, I see what happens to these kids year after year. I’ve watched Shelby from Albany, Ga. (pictured above, kneeling, white shirt)—with her quirky, high-pitched voice—blossom into a young woman on her way to college in the fall. I’ve seen Fundisha come back home to Seattle after her first summit and launch a community program to raise awareness about youth violence. This year, she did her senior project on the same topic. She plans to go to Howard University.
After their first Youth Empowerment experiences last year, Giovannie and Kevin from northern Virginia were asked to lead an advocacy workshop for adults. They said they never would’ve had this experience if it hadn’t been for their involvement in this program. They’re back at the summit this year.
So as long as the Youth Empowerment Program Summit continues to convene, I will be here, even if temperatures push 100 degrees (like now). I want these teenagers—who are so committed to positive change—to know that there is an entire network of people around the country committed to helping them.
Read Laura Reinhardt’s magazine feature about the Youth Empowerment Program.