The Florida Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) is an annual career and leadership training program that is both educational and motivational. Sponsored annually by The Able Trust, the YLF brings together rising high school juniors and seniors each summer to spend a long weekend in Tallahassee learning about community and academic resources, disability history, career options and personal leadership. They also take part in social activities which enable them to network, learn from each other and build friendships that will last a lifetime.
The YLF is one of three youth programs of The Able Trust that works to reduce the dropout rate of youth with disabilities and improve their participation in employment related activities. These programs focus on building self-esteem, developing personal leadership skills and preparing young adults with disabilities for life beyond high school.
The 2013 Florida Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) welcomed first-time delegates from across the state as they participated in four days of leadership and social training highlighted by a "Day at the Capitol", Annual Career Fair, and Mentors' Luncheon.
YLF delegates participate in a mock session debate in The House Chambers of the Florida House of Representatives.
Living up to its tagline of Empowerment, Education, and Employment, Disability History and Sensitivity seminars made delegates aware of their rights as citizens and their responsibility to ensure that those rights are carried over into future generations, while learning to treat others (including themselves) with respect. Career exploration and college opportunities were also discussed, as resource events reinforced the need for students to strive for the highest levels of education and employment possible.
Delegate Lizzie Downs addresses her fellow delegates as they debate about the FCAT and other educational issues facing them in their schools.
But those are only two of the three "Es". The first, and arguably most important, "E", empowerment, galvanizes the other two. Without a deeply-rooted sense of self-worth and pride, the other two don't matter.
"YLF has taught me not to be fearful of my future. To embrace it, & to be excited about it," YLF 2013 delegate Brianna Schubert said.
Nearly 40 delegates -- many of whom leaving home for the very first time -- accepted the challenge of getting out of their comfort zones in order to experience something new, something that could be life-changing.
Rachel Oliver of Workforce Plus in Tallahassee addresses YLF delegates about interview techniques and job readiness during the annual career fair.
"The more I sit here & think about my life & my future, I realize just how lucky I am," she said. "Sometimes I struggle, I'm not going lie. Sometimes I wonder why I was dealt these cards. Sometimes I get so mad that I can't do what feels like the simplest things, like running. I wish I fit into places better, that I wouldn't be nervous that people would judge me. But, then I have to remember the experience I just had; the one where nobody treats you like you're different. The one where you can talk to somebody for five minutes and feel like you've known them forever. The one where you make bonds that will last forever."
"I had such a great time at the Youth Leadership Forum at our state capital these past few days," delegate Drew Dees added. "I have had a lot of fun experiences and made a bunch of new friends. The Forum has taught me how to embrace my Disability and inspire others to do the same. If we all come together, we can make a BIG difference, and I hope to take what I learned from this Experience and SHOW THE WORLD THAT WE CAN!"
Florida Department of Transportation ADA Coordinator Dean Perkins serves as a career mentor during the annual career fair, as delegates Joseph McCully, Matthew Tansill, and Peter Gray learn about the field of Engineering.
A special group of 21 students received special invitations to come back as staff members after attending YLF as delegates themselves in 2012. They return home proud of the impact they've made in the lives of young people who are traveling the same road they are.
"To me, being a Support Staff member is about standing up for what’s right," Lacesha Owens said. "It's about being a positive role model and making yourself a better person, and to always be a leader not a follower."
"After YLF 2012, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with all the great experiences I gained," Tyler Von Harten said. "I decided that I wanted to pay it forward. If I could change someone's life and make them feel as and inspired as I was at YLF last year, my goal in life would be complete. It was incredible to witness the process of watching delegate break the ice little by little and blossom into the great leaders that each one of them are. It was a pleasure seeing the new generation of leaders."
"I cannot think of anything to say but 'WOW'," Dawn Tansill said about her son. "My sweet, sweet, sweet boy came home more confident; more sure of himself and with a completely different perspective of making friends that have physical disabilities as well as the learning disabilities he struggles with. Matthew’s literal words when he got in the car was, 'Mom, I am forever changed.'"