Nearly 700 rising high school seniors from across Georgia are gathering this week at Georgia Southern University to participate in Georgia Girls State and Georgia Boys State, learning the ins and outs of government.
Girls and Boys State are leadership camps that take place nationwide and simulate state and local government through mock elections and debate. Boys State is sponsored by the American Legion and the Georgia event has been held at Georgia Southern for the past 30 years. The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors Girls State, which has been held at GSU the past 10 years.
“I encourage (the Boys State attendees) to be a voice, rather than an echo,” said Phillip Youngblood, Georgia Boys State director. “It’s easy to pitch in and sing along with the person who’s singing the loudest, but we’ve reached a point and place in our country where we need to be prepared to stand up flat-footed for the values that made this our country.”
Students arrived Sunday for the week-long event and were assigned to mythical cities, counties and political parties. Students were nominated for different local and state government positions, including mayor and city council, said Deedy Harrell, Georgia Girls State director. Attendees then spend the remainder of the week campaigning, electing officials and establishing their mythical state. The boys’ camp also elects national positions.
Before arriving, students were given the opportunity to submit a bill to argue before either the Senate or House of Representatives. Bills must pass in both the Senate and the House before becoming official laws.
Through developing an awareness of government processes, Harrell hopes that students will “become everyday good citizens, vote and have a more patriotic nature when they leave.”
“You hear so many things about the negative that kids are involved in your hometown paper or on television, but when I come here I (see) that the future is bright and that we have good kids,” Harrell said. “We’re going to be OK in America. They’re awesome kids.”
The week’s lessons went beyond mock politics, as well. Speakers with real-world leadership experience spoke at both Girls and Boys State. Chris Clark, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Michael Thurmond, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Labor and a U.S. Senate candidate, spoke before the boys’ camp.
“You don’t have to be elected to office to make a difference and be a leader. That’s what really came out of the week for me,” said Clark, a Boys State alumna and former GSU Student Government Association president. “When I came here I thought, ‘Well only people who run for office get to be leaders and that’s not the case. There are all kinds of things that you can do and Boys State teaches you that.”
Deborah Craytor, dDirector of Law-Related Education for the State Bar of Georgia, spoke before the girls’ camp.
“What I’ve learned so far is that everyone has their own talents and that everyone is actually born a leader,” said Cameron Gary, a student at Boys State from Lowndes County. “The thing I really want to take away from this is that everyone has their own talents and that you just have to find them inside of each person.”
Participating in mock government provides leadership skills, including speaking in front of an audience, that students take back to their schools, said Judi Hendrix-Poole, program development specialist for GSU’s Continuing Education Center. Several politicians and national leaders, including former President Bill Clinton, participated in Girls and Boys State, she said.
The American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary raise funds to provide the camp to students at no cost. Select students from each camp are elected into positions which represent Georgia at Girls and Boys Nation in Washington, D.C.
Girls State ends with graduation Friday at 8:30 a.m. in the Nessmith Lane Continuing Education Building. Boys State ends with graduation Saturday also in the Nessmith Lane Building at 8:15 a.m. Both began on Sunday.