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.
If you were to talk to the students selected to participate in the 2013 Florida Youth Leadership Forum (YLF), most would tell you that more than anything they're eager to make a new friend. Finding the courage to leave familiar surroundings, these high school students are willing to give up a portion of their summer in hopes of connecting with others who share their plight.
Delegates Keaunia and Heather raise their hands as they participate in a mock legislative session in the House Chambers of The Florida Capitol.
For others, the motivation is more personal.
"Since I have a learning disability, I'm in lower-level science and math classes," delegate Jenny Q. told us. "Those lower levels have caused me to be bullied, but I decided to stand up for myself and create an anti-bullying campaign at my school. I love the students I've helped. This is my way of getting back at those bullies."
Able Trust Chairman Richard Cole (right) addresses delegates on the importance of being leaders in their home communities.
Empowerment is one of three mantras that guide YLF. This unique, four day leadership and social training event is sponsored each year by The Able Trust in the hopes of shaping the minds and hearts of high school juniors and seniors with disabilities. Empowerment is the first "E" (closely followed by Education and Employment) for a reason. Until one finds the courage to stand up for and believe in their abilities, no progress towards self-enlightenment and independence can ever be realized.
"When I was younger, I went to an Autism Speaks function with my mother," Palm Beach delegate Christian Mancino said. "I was confused about their goal of finding a cure. If they had a pill to get rid of it, I wouldn't take it because Asperger's is a part of who I am. To rid me of it would be no less than to rid the world of me."
This year's delegates run track, play football, and cheer on the sidelines at their high schools sporting events. They like to play video games, write novels and short stories, and spend time surfing the Web. In short, they're no different than any other teenager.
Some of them already realize that. And have taken on the task of educating others that they too can enjoy the same freedom of thought, breaking free from the shackles that society may try to bind them with.
"I want to be a delegate because I've been put into a situation where I need to be a leader," Jenny said. "This program can help me grow and be a better leader. I want to prove just because I have a learning disability that I'm not stupid, and can do whatever I put my mind to."