104th Fighter Wing, Westfield, Mass. --
Master Sgt. Ernest Smith and Tech Sgt. Rhon Salmon, Massachusetts Air National Guard recruiters, spent a week in June volunteering with the Massachusetts American Legion "Boy's State" program.
From June 14th to June 21st, they lived in a dorm at Stonehill College and assisted the American Legion by teaching high school juniors the concepts of democracy. "It was quite a week," said Smith. "I've been doing this for nine years...and it's truly a highlight of my summer."
In 1935, the American Legion initiated the Boy's State program to promote a better understanding of democracy, United States government and American traditions. The program originated during a time when fascist/communist organizations were hosting similar programs. A gentleman named Hayes Kennedy, a professor at Loyola University of Law, is credited with founding the program. In the spirit of democracy, Boy's State (and Girl's State!) was born and, thanks to the American Legion and countless volunteers, the institution has continued for almost 80 years.
Annually, 49 states and the District of Columbia host their own Boy's State programs; in turn, each state sends two delegates to "Boy's Nation" where they meet the President of the United States. Future President Clinton was pictured shaking then President Kennedy's hand as a Senator from Boy's State. Other notable Boy's State members include Neil Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Tom Brokaw, Nick Saban, Michael Dukakis and many more.
Stonehill College in Easton has hosted the program in Massachusetts since 1996; it always occurs during the month of June. For the fourth time this year in Massachusetts only, both the Boy's and Girl's State programs were held simultaneously, although the programs mostly run separately with some crossover at lectures, meals and a dance.
"Attendees this year included 410 young men and 317 young women from across the Commonwealth," said Robert "Bob" Hicks, Chairman of Boys State Bristol County. "Some of them may go to Bridgewater State, and some may go to Harvard next year. They are all 17 years old, they all high school juniors, and they are all very special." The students are nominated by their school counselors or high school principals; often they are high achievers, with an interest in learning about government.
The week at Boy's State teaches student attendees about the democratic process in a participatory forum, with executive, legislative and judicial departments; students participate in town and municipal meetings, elections, mock trials, and more. The well-organized and fast moving schedule keeps the students on their feet, learning about democracy as an active citizen. There are seminars, guest speakers, daily sports and special events. There is also a thriving sports program to give the boys a chance to exercise, build camaraderie and compete. Football, basketball, soccer, track, softball and several other sports are organized and refereed by the councilors every afternoon. These culminate in championship games with the winners taking the councilors on in football and softball for bragging rights. Hundreds of volunteers help to make the program a success. The volunteers are from a variety of settings such as the business community, educational institutions, government officials, the American Legion, and a few from the military.
This year Master Sgt. Ernest Smith was a town counselor responsible for twenty two boys, who lived in the same dorm, ate together and attended the various days' activities together. Smith created a cohesive team, comprised of students from all parts of the state. Their fields of interest varied from graphics, technology, chemistry and military, to public relations, history, finance and business administration.
"Some are interested in a military career, and some are not, but I am not here to recruit, and I don't go near that. I am here to help influence kids to become participatory U.S. citizens and to make the right life choices," said Smith. "I honestly get as much personal satisfaction out of the week as the students."
Smith did add a taste of military spice his group of students, by teaching them an original cadence in the name of Boy's State. (See: https://www.facebook.com/barnes.ang/timeline/2013#!/photo.php?v=3258419157564&set=vb.1779706285&type=2&theater
For Smith's colleague, Tech Sgt. Rhon Salmon, this was a first time event. "It's been a much better experience than I anticipated," Salmon said. "I'm exhilarated but exhausted."
Bob Hicks, a volunteer and Chairman of Boys State Bristol County said, "Ernie Smith has done a great deal to help us with Boy's State...including providing t-shirts for our (eight) athletic teams, each team with their own color. He has been a counselor in one of our communities for several years; he is a positive force and it's deeply appreciated."
John Brady, a Boy's State counselor for 24 years, and member of Board of Directors the Massachusetts program, "got the (Boy's State) bug when I attended in high school."
Brady organizes a college fair at the end of the Boy's State week, to give the students an opportunity to learn about their college options. "We try to expose them at multiple levels to all different sorts of opportunities, which is an important part of this experience. Quite frankly, the way the Guard works, there is an inter-relationship between higher education and military service, and we value that a lot."
"These are 'high-octane' kids who are going to do well, they are going to be successful - they are leaders," said Brady. "They want to be challenged, and we are happy to do that. At the end of the week, they are very appreciative, which you don't always hear from teenagers."
Brady shared a story of an Army officer deployed to Iraq, who had attended the Massachusetts Boy's State program. "He wrote us a letter, and told us he had to set-up a town in Iraq administratively. He said without the Boy's State experience, he would not have had any idea how to do it."
One of the guest speakers at the event, Lt. Col. Chris Shaw, a career Marine JAG and Annapolis (and Boy's State) graduate, summed up the experience perfectly: "Boys State is not some kind of juvenile emersion program. It is a life sentence. It is friendship for life, inspiration for life, mentorship for life, sponsorship for life, a skillset for life."
Master Sgt. Smith has noticed a slight decrease in student attendees over the past few years. "I think it's because a lot of people simply don't know about Boy's and Girl's State, or they don't know how to get here," he said. "If National Guard members have children in high school, this is a FREE summer program worth inquiring about."
Basically, the students should express interest with their school guidance counselors and start the acceptance process through their local American Legion post. There is also a Massachusetts American Legion Boys State Foundation that can help to cover costs if a local Legion post cannot. Posts typically sponsor a set number of boys, but if there is a worthy candidate above that number, the foundation is there to get that boy into the program.
Smith concluded: "The benefits are hard to verbalize because they are on so many levels, but I can tell you that it's an incredible, lifetime opportunity."