More than 300 Kansas youths stormed the Statehouse recently to get an up-close look at how government works and how they can become leaders for positive change in their communities.
The young people, ages 13 to 18, were participating in the annual Citizenship in Action program, hosted by Kansas 4-H Youth Development, to give teenagers an opportunity to see how to make their voices heard when important decisions need to be made.
“The kids are having a good time and they’re discussing issues that are relevant to them and that the legislature is actually debating in session this year,” said Sarah Keatley, Kansas 4-H event coordinator who helped organize this year’s event. “They are getting to experience what their legislators go through on a daily basis.”
Keatley said 327 youths attended CIA this year, the most in its nearly two decades of existence.
“I think what’s important is that students do real-world learning and they learn the process of what happens in state government,” said Kathryn Haffner, a senior at Kansas State University and collegiate adviser for the Kansas 4-H Council. “Also, something that is really amazing is that there are legislators who come and watch them debate and hear what they have to say.
“Even though most of these kids are not yet of age to vote, they still get their opinions heard by their legislators, which is something huge,” Haffner said. “That doesn’t happen for every youth in the state.”
One evening, the teens separated into the Senate and House of Representatives chambers to debate three issues that Kansas legislators also will be debating during the 2018 session: gun control on college campuses; hands-free driving in school zones and construction zones; and labeling of genetically modified foods.
In a mock legislative session, Eli Redington, a freshman at Newton High School, introduced a bill in the House to require hands-free driving in Kansas school zones and construction zones.
“When we started making the bill, we were really confused where to even start, but we knew that we couldn’t allow people to be driving and texting and using distractions in a child or construction zone because it would put too many people in danger,” Redington said.
After a sometimes-heated debate, the original bill was amended in the House and eventually passed by a vote of nearly 2 to 1.
“The process that they’re going through really shows how a bill becomes a law and all the different processes it takes to become a law and how time-consuming it can become, from its introduction all the way up to final passing,” said Kurt Dallman, whose son Erik was one of those who helped argue for amendments to the original bill.
Erik was participating in Citizenship in Action for the third time, his dad said: “Each time he gets a little more confident in his formative ideas. It’s been a very good process for him.”
Kansas 4-H agent Ginger Kopfer has been bringing a group from Geary County for the past 10 years.
“I think the kids learn more (about) how the state works, how they pass the laws and how that all comes together,” Kopfer said. “And like tonight, they even get to sit in their chairs, debate some legislation and see that come all the way through.”
Seth Bielefeld, a junior at Abilene High School, said learning more about state government and his opportunity to influence change is beneficial.
“I’m learning that I can make a difference by contacting my representative and senator and telling them more about what’s important to me,” he said. “I think it means a lot to some people having youth speak up for issues they believe in.”
Terry Holdren, the chief executive officer and general counsel for the Kansas Farm Bureau, told the group that as few as five people contacting their legislator on a given issue can be enough to change their vote.
“Hopefully the kids all heard that and they realize that they can make a difference,” Kopfer said. “They’re the future, so hopefully they can make the world a better place than it is right now.”
Shawna Riffel, who accompanied her son, Spencer, to the event, added: “I think it matters that kids know they can make a difference because someday they’re going to be the ones making the laws and they need to learn how to do it and be responsible in doing it.”
Seth Yenni is a freshman at Hutchinson Community College and a past participant in Citizenship in Action as a Kansas 4-Her.
“They always say that the capitol is the people’s house of Kansas,” he said. “This is such a unique event because the high-school-aged kids of Kansas get to be in the people’s house of Kansas and sit in the chairs of the people who represent them.
“You don’t get that opportunity in very many places. So the opportunity for the kids to work in committee to make a bill and then come to the House and Senate to debate—it’s a unique opportunity that not very many kids get to do, but with 4-H and this event, we get to.”
Redington, the high school freshman whose bill was ultimately passed in the mock session of the House, said he’s motivated by his experience.
“I know that the best way I can make a difference is with a lot of people,” he said. “I really don’t feel I can do much if I am just working in one city or town, but if I go to the state or country (level), like this.…I’d be able to help a lot more people on topics that I could voice my own opinion on and find other people who can voice their opinions with me.”
For more information about opportunities for Kansas youth through 4-H, visit www.kansas4-h.org.