Teens Making an Impact

Story by Angie Self

A bustle of activity picks up about 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Arkansas State Capitol as representatives prepare to begin their session at 1:30. Young school children line the right side of the marble steps leading to the House chambers as a teacher snaps a photo of her students from the level above. As the youngsters patiently wait for instructions from the tour guide, a group of teenagers dressed in suits and skirts pass by quickly on the left side as they head to another level of the building.

In one corner of a hallway, near one of the doors where representatives are passing in and out of offices, a group of teenagers are gathered in a circle listening to two lobbyists explain their jobs and issues they are tracking. The gallery of the vacant Senate holds another small group listening to their leader explain the process of how a bill becomes law.

Shortly before 1:30, as the House floor becomes energetic with representatives arriving for the session, these teenagers scattered throughout the Capitol filter into the galleries of the House until there is standing room only among them and other interested observers. The first item of business that day was discussion and vote to override Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of House Bill 1037, making it illegal to abort a fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

This was the first of four overrides on two separate bills approved by the House and Senate in the state Capitol that kept the eyes of the nation glued to Arkansas as history was being made. The country’s toughest legislation on restricting abortion was approved the following week by the Arkansas legislature. These TeenPact Leadership School students who came to the Capitol for a week of government classes walked away with one of the best hands-on experiences of how the process works.

What is TeenPact? It is a ministry which began in 1994 to help train young Christians across the country to understand the political process, value their liberty and defend their Christian faith. The Arkansas program has been growing since the late 1990s with a record-breaking 78 students attending the week-long class this year in Little Rock, said Sarah Moore of Rowe, state coordinator. She has been involved in the state classes with her children for about eight years and currently serves on the board of directors for the ministry that is based in Richmond, Va.

Typically, the students who attend are home schooled, but this year included a group of students from a private Christian school in the state. Eleven members of the Russellville Education Association of Christian Homeschoolers were among those teenagers watching their state legislators in action.

Jared Self who lives north of Russellville peered over the railing in the gallery that day to watch his state representative, Robert Dale of Dover, punch the button to vote for the override and the board flash his name in green. His friend, Timothy Young of Russellville, was intent on watching the vote of Rep. Andrea Lea of Russellville. Seated among the other students in the gallery, waiting on the vote, was Jerry Cox and other staff members of the Family Council who had been lobbying for the passage of the bill.

“Representative (Andy) Mayberry (R- of Hensley) talked about how this was a good bill that would save lives,” recalls Callie Self, attending TeenPact for her first year. “Another representative (Randy Alexander (R) of Fayetteville) talked about how the legislators approved the bill the week before and needed to approve it again today, despite any pressure they might be feeling from the governor to change their minds. When the voting actually happened, it seemed like about three seconds and the board lit up on the vote count. It was announced that the override was approved 53 to 28, and we all clapped in the gallery. It was a really extraordinary experience.”

Parents are involved in helping with the program from overseeing the homework assignments for the class to serving as camp sponsors. But, the driving leadership of TeenPact is the teens themselves. Interns and staff members who run the classes with supervision from the camp director and coordinator range in age from 16 to 18. When students attend the four-day class for the first time, it is a shock that students their age or just a few years older are given so much responsibility and handle it so well.

“I was so impressed with the staffers in their dress, composure and how they walked the walk of leadership,” said Luke Helms of Russellville who attended for the first time. “I could tell they had worked hard to gain the knowledge they needed to teach and pass on information to us in the classes.”

One of those students this year was Mitchell Freer, 18, of Clarksville. This was his second year to work in a staff position with TeenPact which he began attending several years ago with his older sister and other members of REACH. REACH is a local home school support group that includes over 90 families in the Arkansas River Valley.

The idea of this leadership training and experience from founder Tim Echols of Georgia, is to help the young people “embrace their call as the next generation of leaders by giving them tools, teaching and opportunities. The name “TeenPact” came from the idea of “teens making an impact.” Freer said that a goal of the program’s leadership is to have about 100 former TeenPact students serving in government leadership positions across the country within the next five years.

Two of the youngest state legislators in Oklahoma right now, Rep. Elise Hall and Rep. Josh Cockroft, are former TeenPact students and leaders. Hall was sworn into office in 2010 at the age of 21, the youngest age of a state legislator allowed by the Oklahoma Constitution.

“I have an appreciation for the ministry so much more as a staffer than I did as a student,” Freer said. “We were given so much more responsibility, like making sure the class starts on time so that the schedule doesn’t get off track. The main thing I like is the different type of leadership that TeenPact stresses. It’s not about ordering people around and telling the students what to do. It’s really about servant leadership and leading by example. I admire the way that the interns and the program director are your peers but are in a higher position of authority. It’s just really cool to be able to learn so much from them, and there is no reason that I can’t be like them if I just apply myself and try hard enough. I enjoyed being in a leadership position but still having fellow leaders to look up to. It definitely helps.”

Three interns, two from Texas and one from Oregon, were in charge of the leadership team this year, Freer explained. He and several other staff members, mostly from Arkansas, were under their leadership in planning the schedule and dividing up the teaching assignments. All TeenPact participants are required to wear conservative business attire during the day while going back and forth between classes held in the Victory Building and field experiences in the Capitol. Leaders were required to make quick changes to the schedule to accommodate special speakers who included Secretary of State Mark Martin and Judge Rhonda Wood of Conway, a judge with the Arkansas Court of Appeals. A mock governor’s election at TeenPact was delayed an hour so that students could observe the override vote of the House when staffers received word that it would be on that day’s agenda. Staffers and adult leaders of TeenPact were staying abreast of legislative action throughout the week to keep the students informed of current bills being considered.

First-year TeenPact participants are divided into groups for field experiences to study the three branches of government as well as how to analyze a bill, crossfire debate on issues and attempt to make contact with a lobbyist (also called advocates or consultants) at the Capitol.

Several groups were successful in finding consultants outside of committee rooms who were willing to speak with the students and explain issues. Freer and another staff member were in charge of teaching the bill analysis portion of the field experience. With the homework, class work and tests given during the week-long class, students earn 1/3 of a semester credit for civics or government that could be used on their high school transcript.

TeenPact stresses the importance of praying for local, state and federal leaders and brings this point to a reality with prayer walks at the state class. The students divide up into groups and stand outside the governor’s office, the old Supreme Court room and the galleries of the House and Senate to pray for the leaders and the decisions they are making.

“The first year I did this, I was kind of afraid someone might run up and tell us we couldn’t do it because of separation of church and state,” Jared Self recalls. “But no one did, and now I really enjoy how personal it is by praying in the Capitol. One of the things the staffers tell us is that we need to be like the aroma of Christ. Here we are, teenagers, dressed in suits and walking around quietly and respectfully. When we stop and pray, it is such a testimony for Christ.”

Alumni to TeenPact each year are required to write essays on political topics. Angela Sperry of London has attended TeenPact for four years and plans to return again next year. She said that the alumni went to the Capitol to gather views on social protests this year. Students asked opinions on the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements as well as other social protests.

“After gathering information from adults and having in-class discussions on the essays, we all came to the conclusion that a social protest is not the best way to stand up for what we believe,” Sperry explained. “There might come a time when we as Christians would need to take a stand, but social protests should not be our first choice. The best thing is to pray about it and let God guide us in making our decisions.”

One of the things that Sperry said she likes to see is new people come and think they are going to be miserable but then have a great time. It’s also neat to see people transition from students to staff positions, she added.

Jennifer Helms, mother of Luke Helms, said that her son was reluctant to go this year, but she didn’t give him a choice about going. “When I picked him up at the end of the week, the first words out of his mouth were ‘I’m going to go back next year,’ and he talked all the way home about his experiences,” Helms said. “When I took him on Monday, I stayed for the first two hours of the camp and the parents’ meeting. I left there impressed with the program and really wanted to stay the whole week myself to watch it all.”

Matt Garrett of Dover also attended TeenPact this year for the first time and made a connection with an 18-year-old student who is currently working for a state legislator.

“I thought TeenPact was great and hope I can go next year,” Garrett said. “I liked every part of it. I did meet this other guy, Wesley, who was in my committee that turned out to be a political consultant for one of the senators. I liked discussing different bills with him and finding out he worked at the Capitol. He has been texting me about the vote in the Senate and the House on the 12- week abortion bill. I was really glad when he told me it passed.”

TeenPact students often come home with an appreciation for state government and continue to keep up with what is going on during the legislative session. Self came home and wrote letters to his legislators about the upcoming vote on Medicaid expansion being considered. He was attending TeenPact for his third year and wanted to take a more active role as a student by running for governor in the mock election at the class.

“I really wanted to push myself,” Self said. “That’s what TeenPact is all about — pushing to your potential. Running for governor is one of the hardest things to do as a student, so I wanted to try it. Even though I lost, I had fun running and enjoyed the opportunity to try.”

Self, his sister and a few friends put up campaign posters at Camp Aldersgate where most of the students stayed. He also pre-made campaign cards and brought candy to pass out at his campaign table in the Commons where the students ate and had nightly devotionals.

Another goal this year for Self was to run for committee chairman. Students split up into committees during lunch to simulate the committees of the state legislature with a chairman and clerk appointed for each committee.

“The chairman keeps the general order, facilitates the discussion and the voting process,” he explained. “I was elected by my committee for that position since I had the most experience and knew parliamentary procedure. It was a fairly relaxed atmosphere and fun. Bills written by the students that we approved in committee, were sent on to our mock legislative session.”

Part of the fun of the homework is to try to pick an unusual or controversial bill that will make it out of committee and be picked by staffers to be read during the legislative session. Self said he has yet to have one of his bills read so that he can argue it. However, Timothy Young had his bill chosen last year as a first-timer and was able to approach the well and argue for its passage. Young, who has Type 1 Diabetes, wrote a bill to allow service dogs to attend private schools with their owners.

TeenPact has alumni events in addition to the state classes that are held in 38 states. This allows students to interact with others from across the country, even Alaska, in a more relaxed atmosphere, said Sperry, who attended National Convention for two years. Freer made connections at the same event which led him to an invitation to work on the Tim Griffin for Congress campaign a few years ago.

“I definitely would never have made that connection without TeenPact,” he said.

Freer also attended the “Back to DC” alumni event last year just before the presidential election. A special moment he enjoyed at the event was all 75 to 100 participants huddling around some guys in the group with guitars as they sang praise and worship songs one night near the Lincoln Memorial. Some other tourists nearby joined in with them, Freer remembers.

The week-long event includes a mock presidential election that is focused on the actual campaign process instead of the candidate, he said. Another highlight of the trip was attending the Voters Value Summit and hearing some 25 speakers including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Michele Bachman and Rand Paul.

Freer said he was glad he had the opportunity to staff for two years and attend the training for staffing held in Oklahoma. “I’m not sure politics is in my future or not, but TeenPact has definitely given me an appreciation for government and one that a lot of people my age don’t necessarily have,” he said. “If it’s in God’s plans, then I would definitely be interested in pursuing politics or some sort of public service in the future.”

“TeenPact is the most effective way I have seen of giving teens an appreciation for government and how easy it is to be involved,” Freer said. “I guess the thing that I would want TeenPact students to know is that the Capitol is not about a bunch of rich guys in suits running the state. They are Arkansans in this state who have worked hard and have been given the opportunity to pursue public service.”

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