Sometimes it's easy to feel like we're alone when we face a challenge.
Feeling as though no one understands or cares can make us want to give up on ourselves if we feel that no one is in our corner.
This past July, high school students with disabilities from across the state realized just the opposite as they participated in the 15th Florida Youth Leadership Forum in Tallahassee. Over the course of four days, delegates learned about leadership, social responsibility, business etiquette, college and university resources, STEM careers, and many other topics.
Madeline Nunez said that she will continue to build her leadership skills by encouraging others in her school to speak out against bullying. She aspires to be a registered nurse upon graduating from college.
"One thing I learned about myself at YLF is that I'm capable of way more than what I expected," she said. "Just because we may have to work a little harder, we cannot be quitters."
"Just because I have a learning disability doesn't mean I have to set myself at a lower level to please popular opinion," delegate Scott Schoeneman added.
YLF alums Shavaughn Barnes, Valerie Baker, and Mervin Hernandez participated in a panel discussion during the annual Mentors' Luncheon, sharing their personal YLF experience with an audience of nearly 200. Valerie is a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University pursuing a degree in marketing. She has served as a group facilitator for several years.
"When I came to YLF six years ago, it was my first time being away from my parents," Valerie said. "And they were pretty nervous. However, when I finally made it to Tallahassee, I immediately felt welcome and all of my fears went away and I've been coming back ever since."
"Before coming to YLF, I wasn't sure I would be able to go to college and have a true college experience; live on campus and do what my friends were doing," she added. "But after coming here and learning about all the resources available to me, I learned that I could go to college and be away from my parents and live independently."
Shavaughn first came to YLF nine years ago. She, like Valerie, is a long-time group facilitator. A graduate of Florida State College with a degree in education, Shavaughn is now a teacher in the Jacksonville area.
"For me, YLF was the first time I had ever seen so many people with disabilities in one setting," Shavaughn said. "I went back to my school and stared a club because of YLF. One of the most memorable experiences I've had as a YLF mentor is serving as a small group facilitator. That one experience is what made me want to be a teacher, which I am today."
Mervin has been a part of YLF for 10 years. A graduate of the University of Central Florida with a degree in accounting, Mervin has held several accounting and professional staffing positions in New York. He continues to come back and serve as an adult volunteer because of the impact the program had on him when he was a delegate.
"One of the things I've enjoyed about coming back each year is seeing the students make the progression from delegates to staff members; coming back with stories of how they've left home and gone away to college; that's very, very powerful."
Able Trust Board Chairman Richard Cole addresses delegates and volunteers on the importance of leadership. A native of Pennsylvania, Cole was a successful lawyer who advocated for people with disabilities. A motorcycle accident many years ago resulted in the amputation of his right leg. Cole shared his personal story of perseverance and determination and encouraged the audience to never give up the pursuit of their goals, and never to stop leading by example.
"After two months in the hospital, and the long rehab afterward, I had a long time to think about my future; what my new life would be like," Cole said. "In that time I noticed people looked at me differently, simply because my right leg was missing. People made snap decisions about my abilities. And for the first time in my life I understood what many of my clients with disabilities dealt with on a daily basis. At first I was angry. But in time that anger changed into determination to do whatever I could to erase the stereotypes against people with disabilities."
"Remember this, we are people with disabilities. We are not disabled."
During the annual Day at the Capitol, YLF delegates visited the House Chambers and learned about the legislative process. Michael Nease facilitated a mock session and debate for delegates.
At the annual Day at the Capitol, YLF delegates learned about civic and social responsibility as well as the legislative process. Delegates then voted on the issue they debated.
The YLF annual Career Fair gives delegates the opportunity to explore fields in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Honorable Lori Rowe and Able Trust Board Chair Richard Cole mentor delegates in the field of Law.
During the annual Career Fair, YLF delegates learned about resume writing, how to conduct a job search, and various other skills necessary to secure employment. Afterward, delegates met with career mentors to explore various fields. Kendalyn Staten of Campus USA Credit Union talks to delegates about careers in Banking & Finance.