Breaking Ground 99 - Youth Leadership Academy 2019

by Marissa Fletcher-Smith, Independent Living & Referral Specialist, Empower Tennessee
large group photo of Empower TN, Council and STEP staff and about a dozen young adults with disabilities
Top row, left to right: Gina Lynette, YLA staff; Houston Vandegriff, 2019 grad; Birtha Street, YLA staff; Drew Thigpen, 2019 grad; Brandon Brown, YLA staff and Empower TN Executive Director; Ebony Cole, YLA staff; Thomas Hardeman, 2019 grad; Ned Andrew Solomon, YLA staff; and Marissa Fletcher-Smith, YLA staff. Bottom row, left to right: Gillian Lynette, Peer Mentor; Fermina Lopez, Peer Mentor; Isabel Neely, 2019 grad; Joshua Riley, Peer Mentor; Guice Smith, 2019 grad; Roger Romines, 2019 grad; Sarah Carson, Peer Mentor; and April Meredith, YLA staff.

Lately, the world feels harsh and unsure. When I think of what the future holds, it is difficult not to be resigned to fate. However, I steadfastly long for hope and understanding. After the 2019 Youth Leadership Academy (YLA), I feel encouraged by our young people. Despite the uncertainty they experience with us, even more so because of their youth, their light is truly the promise of our country and of the world. Through encouraging and enhancing that youth light, we can all share in the redemptive hope for a better tomorrow.

This year’s YLA was hosted by three agencies: the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, STEP (Support & Training for Exceptional Parents), and the agency I work for, Empower Tennessee. Our agencies collaborated with staff involvement and funding. The funding allowed for participants who lived outside of Middle Tennessee to be able to attend this vital occasion.

It was a small affair, but big on action! This year we focused on disability pride and civil rights, employment, self-advocacy, problem solving, near-future planning, creating personal statements, and YLA testimonials. Through these interactive sessions, the participants were able to learn but also contribute in a variety of ways. This allowed YLA to become something more uniquely special than our agencies could have ever dreamed of during our planning process.

As a pinnacle example of YLA’s long-lasting reach and scope, this year we welcomed some of our previous years’ attendees as “Peer Mentors” to the new generation of YLA participants. Last year, they strove to enrich their lives with skills that would help them become leaders for themselves and the community at large. They bonded over assistive technology, advocating for themselves, and learning about employers and what it means to be employed. They spent time at the Frist Art Museum and connected with each other over what their hopes were for the future. This year, these individuals came back to YLA with their own personal growth and life experiences, ready to shine as examples of leadership to the YLA Class of 2019.

The Peer Mentors’ lights shone brightly as they created and led activities, shared their empowerment stories, helped others, and by publicly standing proud in their own personal truths. This made a profound impact on our 2019 YLA participants. Not only did they have positive examples to look up to and learn from, they had people with shared life experiences who actively engaged them in finding their own voices.

It was truly a beautiful sight to see and a joy to be around! It lifted my spirits seeing these young adults discuss and work on important life issues and choices. It caused me to examine myself more deeply and fully, and to reflect on the life choices I’m making. It made me feel honored to be around young people who seek to not only be better for themselves, but to think about how they can be the light of our shared future for others they might know personally, or encounter in the future.

The group of young people who participated in YLA sought it out themselves. They filled out the applications. They had one-on-one interviews and worked on a plan to be here to participate. They made the effort to learn more about themselves and to gain skills to become leaders in their own communities. This group was fun and proud. They were unique, inquisitive, open, creative, and absolutely on the road to adulthood.

When we came to the end of this amazing experience, we asked our participants and Peer Mentors what the YLA had meant to them. Their answers were profound, and struck a major chord with me. One Peer Mentor said, “It took a lot of work to get confident, and if you want to be confident you got to work at it. You got to find the part of you that you like, even if it is really, really tiny. And it can feel like it’s really, really tiny, like there’s nothing to like, but if you find that one piece and hold on to it, you can get confidence! Then people will finally take you seriously.”

Another Peer Mentor stated, “It’s just been great. I’m glad to get back to the disability community and the youth in general that have disabilities to teach self-advocacy skills so they can help other people be able to advocate for themselves.”

One of our participants said, “The experience was amazing…I would’ve never thought about some of the ways to handle certain things, and it really helped me and I’m very appreciative of that.”

The sparkling feedback from our Mentors and participants reflects the genuine gold nugget of our shared experience at YLA 2019. Working together, these sparkling lights can overpower the harsher realities of our world with the unified brilliance of shared experience, understanding, and vision.