Three Dunkirk High School students will be given a rare glimpse into the legislative process they will not soon forget. Chosen because of their scholastic achievement, community involvement, social awareness and Latino heritage, Krystal Lebron, Rafael Muller, Genesis Ortiz and Markel Vega are representing their area at the 22nd annual Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute (PR/HYLI) in Albany from March 24 to 26.
In addition to the Dunkirk students, Chautauqua County will also be well represented by Jomar L. Gomez, Jeany Melendez and Marcos Melendez, who have been chosen as delegates from Jamestown High School. They, along with students from Buffalo, comprise the western regional delegation. Karisse Rotger-Gonzalez, Hispanic outreach coordinator for Chautauqua Striders, has been offering her guidance, support and expertise.
Sponsored by the New York State Senate and Assembly, the New York State Education Department Office of Bilingual Education and Foreign Studies, the New York City Department of Education, Aspira of New York, Inc., the Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network West (RBE-RN), and The College Board, this event has been held annually since 1990. The conference was named in memory of the late Angelo Del Toro. A 20-year veteran of the State Assembly, he exemplified the fulfillment of individual potential while dedicating his life to the service of others.
Dunkirk students participating in the PR/HYLI, from left: Rafael Muller, Krystal Lebron, Genesis Ortiz, Markel Vega.
The purpose of the Institute is to develop leadership skills, while gaining an understanding of the legislative process through research and the development of relevant proposals. Community service and political activism are enhanced through interaction with positive adult role models. The Institute also serves as an opportunity for dialogue between teens and adults in the greater community over issues of importance to Puerto Rican/Hispanic youth.
Students met in Buffalo for a series of training sessions that are now culminating in their participation as delegates to the Mock Assembly where they will "debate" and "enact" laws much as elected officials do. In Albany, more than 200 students from across the state are taking part in a variety of activities including team-building, college and career development, youth rally, and youth forum with current state legislators.
The highlight of the three-day event is the Mock Assembly that will actually be conducted in the New York State Assembly chamber. At the end of the weekend, a Student Delegate Recognition Dinner will be held where some of the high school seniors who have previously submitted essays will be chosen to receive college scholarships. Once the delegates return to their respective communities, it is expected they will continue to refine their newfound skills and prepare to assume community and student leadership roles and, hopefully, to further their education by attending institutes of higher learning.
Rotger-Gonzalez put this perspective on the importance of PR/HYLI.
"It is a life changing experience for these students,"she said. "It is very exciting to see them step into their assemblyperson role and debate with such passion. They study hard, do research, and meet to practice and sharpen their skills. They bring back all the necessary tools to become great leaders in our society. I am very proud of their commitment and effort and of their families for the support they give to them. I am grateful to have been part of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute this year."
Susanne Heist, Dunkirk High School ESL teacher, is a 12-year veteran trainer and chaperone with the program. She wishes that there were more slots available for students each year because "to witness the students' personal growth through this experience is amazing. Through the training sessions and participation in the mock assembly students gain new skills and recognize potential they may not have recognized in themselves before."
"PR/HYLI is a wonderful experience and I'm thankful for this amazing opportunity," said JHS student Jeany Melendez. "PR/HYLI has not only taught me how to develop leadership skills that I can apply when I'm debating bills, but skills that I can apply in real life."
DHS student Markel Vega is also appreciative of this opportunity.
"To me PR-HYLLI was more than just an event that took place over a weekend," he said. "It was truly a life-changing experience. Through PR-HYLI, I learned a whole lot about myself and the things I can do. Anyone that is given the chance to attend this institute should go; I feel honored to have been chosen to go. All in all, PR-HYLI taught me things about myself that I didn't know. I'm definitely glad I was chosen to go."
Chautauqua Striders is very excited about its participation in the Institute. This is truly a unique and life-changing opportunity for these exemplary young adults and they are all to be congratulated for their achievements!
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