Just as I was beginning to feel exhausted by the arduous news cycle — and immediately before James Comey’s blockbuster testimony kicked it even further into overdrive — I was fortunate to serve as a volunteer staff member at Maine Youth Leadership. The program is one I serve annually. My involvement there, where I am fortunate to spend a long weekend with a cadre of electric teenagers, makes possible an injection of hope and energy that can feel necessary in particularly trying times.
Maine Youth Leadership is an annual seminar with one sophomore from each Maine high school selected to participate. The 2017 event, which kicked off Thursday and ends Sunday, brought together close to 120 high school sophomores from across the state. There, students — each of whom are selected by their high school based on a range of diverse criteria as decided by that school — come together to volunteer, discuss character, bond, meet and hear insights on wisdom from folks like Sen. Angus King, Hancock Lumber CEO Kevin Hancock and more. Would you believe that, armed with his famous lecture on Joshua Chamberlain (“Bayonets!” for those in the know), King earns a standing ovation every year? He’s a fan favorite.
Out in the community, students volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, Portland Trails, Cultivating Community and more. By the time they are to leave come Sunday nearly every young adult has been so moved that they cry at the thought of being separated from each other, and the staff works with and challenges them to imagine ways to take the lessons and vibes that moved them back to school, and to work toward being more energized, engaged and emboldened citizens.
I return, and we support the program, because this is an awesome thing to do for young people. It’s run 100 percent by volunteers and nearly wholly by alumni who were served by it.
But I also return for selfish reasons, too. I come back because there’s nothing better than the energy of optimistic young people who are inspired by feeling heard and taken seriously. And there’s nothing better than being with young people like this, and young people who are, like I was, not inherently optimistic but would benefit from knowing they aren’t alone, that they have more agency than they imagined.
In a world that feels chaotic, this recharges my internal battery. It helps to ground me. I get to disconnect from the world (as much as one can) for four days and to just sit in this inspiration and be made fortunate by their willingness to share that with you. I clearly get as much from them as they do from the annual experience.
I support this program in a number of ways because I am indebted to it, both as a past participant and as someone who is lucky to be served by it. I went to the program when I was a kid. Before I went, I was a kid with a good heart but who was bored, and so I did a lot of stupid things. Maine Youth Leadership was the first place I felt taken seriously by other students and adults for being empathic and intellectually curious, not written off as “just a kid.” My school noted a marked difference in my outlook and disposition. The change did not come because I was told or shown anything beyond the fact that I mattered and, if I felt disaffected, there were things I could do.
I bring this up because it’s easy to get trapped by the feeling that everything is out of control. Like the whole world is going to hell. I have to force myself to realize that this is not true.
The kids, it turns out, are totally alright and worth investing in. And remember that they thrive when offered an environment that is free from judgment, which is not necessarily a luxury we always give them. They thrive, and even inspire when their ideas, insights and feelings are all considered valid, or at least given the benefit of the doubt.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.