Teens Bring Fresh Perspective on Problem-Solving to Capitol: Contest Winners Exchange Views at Youth Forum

By Wetzstein, Cheryl | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Teens Bring Fresh Perspective on Problem-Solving to Capitol: Contest Winners Exchange Views at Youth Forum


Wetzstein, Cheryl, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Thirteen-year-old Misti Kooyman came to Washington from Las Vegas this week to tell her congresswoman that too many kids are dropping out of school and going on welfare.

"They should only let kids who stay in school have driver's licenses" was the message she planned to give to Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich, Nevada Republican.

Jake Quinones, 13, of Las Cruces, N.M., has concluded that illegal immigrants are "ruining it" for legal immigrants. He said he would tell Rep. Joe Skeen, New Mexico Republican, that Congress should penalize employers who hire illegal aliens.

Misti and Jake are two of 51 teen-age winners of the annual RespecTeen "Speak for Yourself" letter-writing contest sponsored by the Lutheran Brotherhood, a fraternal society in Minneapolis that supports youth activities.

The winners - one from each state and the District of Columbia - were in Washington for six days for the RespecTeen National Youth Forum and a tour of Congress, including meetings with members of the House and Senate.

Organizers of the event, now in its eighth year, said about 15,000 seventh- and eighth-graders wrote letters to Congress as part of a social-studies curriculum.

The letters - most of which focused on a single problem and how it could be solved through public policy - were reviewed by panels of educators and other judges. The 51 winning letters were chosen for their clarity of thought, quality of argument, supporting data, sincerity and originality.

"I am writing to you because I am concerned about the speed limit and helmet changes," 14-year-old Stacy Bemis, the Nebraska state winner, wrote to Rep. Bill Barrett, Nebraska Republican. "Many people already drive in the seventies, so if the speed limit is changed, chances are they will creep into the eighties," she reasoned. If Congress raises the speed limits, it should at least require motorcyclists to wear helmets, she wrote.

RespecTeen focuses on 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds "because they don't vote and people don't usually hear from them," explained Ellen Albee, director of the RespecTeen National Youth Forum.

However, it is in the seventh and eighth grades when "many teens begin making decisions about what they believe and what they want to do in life," Miss Albee said. Writing letters and visiting Washington lawmakers enable the young people to learn how to express their opinions and develop a lifelong pattern of civic involvement, she said.

A roundtable discussion with nine youthful state representatives this week revealed both the sober and silly sides of the teen leaders.

They were poised, articulate and earnest when they talked about the issues that brought them to Washington: Nick Marchase, 14, of Vestavia Hills, Ala., said Medicaid reform was overdue and separate programs may be needed to serve poor children, the disabled and the elderly.

Karla Valleskey, 13, said there weren't any homeless people in her hometown of Sitka, Alaska, "but there could be as many as 7 million people homeless in America," including many families with children.

States should be urged to use tax money to address the problem, perhaps by restoring old buildings for the homeless to live in, she said she would tell Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican.

Abdul Martin, a seventh-grade honors student at Shaw Junior High School in the District, planned to tell D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton that gang violence should be stopped by getting more police on the streets, closing down drug-production facilities, and banning guns for everyone but policemen.

Abdul's topic - crime and violence - received the greatest number of letters this year, RespecTeen organizers said. …

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