PERU — In skirts and suits, around 30 local students from across Clinton and Essex counties gathered Saturday at Peru Central High School to meet their state legislators.
Selected by their schools, the student delegates joined the League of Women Voters of the Plattsburgh Area for its second-annual Meet Your State Legislators event, featuring Sen. Betty Little and Assemblywomen Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward. "Not a lot of kids our age get to meet up with senators and get to actually see the Senate from the senator's point of view," said Chazy Central Rural School senior Nathan Swan, who was called into the principal's office two weeks ago to be told he had been selected.
Parents and community members were also invited to attend the event, and nearly 50 of them did.
"We had struggled for years as to how to get more youth involved but also what can we do to make students more aware of what happens in Albany at the government level," said Betty Ann King, co-chair of the event and a board member of the League of Women Voters.
King said the forum gave them a way to bypass partisan political events and show students — and the community — the "straight facts" about how everything plays out in the legislature.
"I feel like it gave me a good insight into what goes on at the government level," said Elijah Beaudin, a senior at Seton Catholic School. "It's inspired me."
Senator Little was the first to address the student delegates.
After campaigning for many others, it wasn't until 1986, when the last of her six children began school, that she ran for a political position. About 16 years later, the Queensbury Republican was elected to the Senate.
"Working with constituents — that's the biggest part of this whole job," she said.
After speaking of her position and some of the bills she was proud to work on, she was asked questions by students on topics important to them, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act.
"I'm glad it was postponed until we get to the point where we know what we're doing," she said of that proposed law.
Other student questions ranged from Keene and Jay flooding to funding for schools. After addressing their questions, Little ended with words about student involvement.
"I think if government's really representing you, you're going to want to get involved. People don't always agree with you, so you have to listen ... Thank you for being interested."
After a short break, Duprey, a Republican from Peru, spoke of her early involvement as a female politician.
Duprey was only 29 when she as elected to the Clinton County Legislature to begin her political career. She was elected in 2006 as assemblywoman.
"I have never been as busy and worked as hard as I do with the Assembly, and I have never done anything I've enjoyed more," she told students, though adding. "It tests everybody's patience."
Duprey offered students information on how committees worked within the Assembly and what role each plays.
After her discussion, a student asked Duprey how young people could get involved.
"You're the ones who have the ability to tell us what is working and what isn't working in the school system," she responded.
"It was while I was a dairy farmer that the political bug bit me," Sayward told the students.
Her introduction into politics was a local Farm Bureau meeting when she was in her 30s. She said the men at the meeting were shocked that she wasn't staying in the kitchen with the other women.
"And that is really when I realized the importance of being involved ... Life is politics, and it just depends on how involved you want to be."
One of the most notable votes Sayward participated in was to legalize gay marriage, she said.
"There are some days when we feel like we're affecting people's lives more than others ... But to be able to affect people's lives in a positive way is extremely rewarding."
Sayward also discussed the college intern program at the Senate, which drew wide eyes and smiles from many of the students.
Before the morning ended, League of Women Voters member Inge Sapp spoke to the students about her transition from Germany to the United States and the freedom of choice.
"You are the future. You can vote. You have the freedom to vote. And I want you to be sure to exercise that right."
Carly Moss from Beekmantown Central School and Mike Danis from Peru Central School were selected by lottery for an all-expense paid trip to attend Students Inside Albany, a program where youths from across the state gather in March for four days of Senate immersion.
"I'm speechless. I've never had an opportunity like this before," Moss said later.
Students felt the day was successful. They were given a unique opportunity to meet with legislators, and the lawmakers got to share their stories, careers and encouragement.
"For them to be able to come and actually be able to have access, in an atmosphere and environment where they're allowed to ask anything they want to ask and have it discussed, I think it's really important," Little said later.
"Hopefully, it encourages them to continue their interest in government and not get discouraged with it."
Email Rebecca Webster at: firstname.lastname@example.org