Our young leaders: Northport Legion sends rising seniors on crash course in government and politics

People by: Joanne Kountourakis, July 19, 2022

Officials from Northport Village, including Trustee Meghan Dolan and Mayor Donna Koch, as well as Town of Huntington (TOH) board member Joan Cergol, town clerk Andrew Raia, and Assemblyman Keith Brown recognized student participants of the American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) Empire Girls State programs.

Earlier this month, Northport High School student Ava Mir was elected the governor of a mythical 51st state, an honor she never would have imagined when she was interviewing to become a “citizen” in a remarkable experience afforded this year to 14 local students by the Northport American Legion Post 694.

“When the opportunity to attend Girls State arose, I knew I wanted to conquer the challenge and to represent Northport as a young person of color,” Ava shared with the Journal. “I wanted to show little girls that looked like me that we too had a seat at the congressional table and as much as there is a lack of representation in government and law, women are more than capable of being powerful, bright leaders.”

Ava is just one in an impressive group of local high school students who received a crash course in government and politics this past month, sent by the Northport Legion to take part in a week-long program “born of a need for youth training in Americanism and practical good citizenship.” The Legion has been fundraising and sending the rising seniors from local high schools to the American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) Empire Girls State since 1954.

Northport Legion Commander Bill McKenna has been in charge of the local initiative for the past four years – every year the Legion sends as many students as it can up to college for a week to gain a working knowledge of government structure, he told the Journal. The Legion fundraises all year to send the boys and girls to their respective programs and covers everything including housing, food and transportation at a cost of $550 per student.

This year, the Legion sent ten boys and four girls to the State program; the boys attended a weeklong learning session at SUNY Morrisville NY in late June and the girls one in SUNY Brockport in the beginning of July. The ten young men who went include Northport High School students Richard Bender, Anthony DeSito, Michael Hagan, Richard Corbett III, and Aiden Larsen. Ava Mir and Maeve Carroll represented Northport High School for the girls, and were joined by Northport resident and St. Anthony’s High School student Kayla DeSousa, as well as Angelia DeMarco from John Glenn High School in Elwood.

A little background
The creation of the Boys State program is credited to two Illinois Legionnaires, Hayes Kennedy, who in 1935 was an instructor at the Loyola University School of Law in Chicago, and Harold Card, a Department Boy Scout Chairman and junior high school instructor. The two men suggested the program as a counter to a project underway in the late 1930s called “Young Pioneer Camps,” which promoted “the virtues of the Fascist system and the uselessness of Democracy” to high school students, with the program’s main goal being to focus on the importance and value of democracy and maintain an effort to preserve and perpetuate it.

The Illinois Department of the American Legion approved Kennedy and Card's project and in June 1935, the very first “Boys State” in the nation was held on the grounds of the Illinois State Fair. From there, the program swiftly spread among other American Legion departments, with the American Legion Auxiliary forming a program for young women in 1938. Girls State sessions have been a regular part of the Auxiliary’s Citizenship program since 1948.

Back to New York
According to the ALA website, high school students who have completed their junior year are competitively selected and sponsored by American Legion Auxiliary units for this program, where they learn about the political process, how political parties are formed and how leaders are chosen and elected to fill various offices.

Nearly 300 young women from 260 counties across New York State participated in the ALA Empire Girls State program, all becoming citizens of that mythical 51st state in which they elected their own officials, from county representatives to judges, members of the legislature, state officials and a governor. Many of the local students were recognized for their accomplishments last week by Village and town officials at an event hosted by Mr. McKenna and the Northport Legion.

Trustee Meghan Dolan attended the event alongside Mayor Donna Koch, as well as Town of Huntington (TOH) board member Joan Cergol, town clerk Andrew Raia, and Assemblyman Keith Brown.

“The young men and women were so impressive on every level from their dedication to the betterment of our community to their very eloquent words about their experience in this program,” Trustee Dolan said in a statement to the Journal. “Similarly, seeing the young people’s relationships with the Legionnaires and their dedication in mentoring these students and hard work putting together such an incredible program was very touching and also inspirational.”

This year, citizens elected Ava to the highest position of governor, and Maeve, who was a senator for the week, to go to the Girls Nation program in Washington D.C.

“As governor, I worked my hardest to amplify the voices of Girls State and to empower every girl… because this is what I aspire to see in our society today and government,” Ava said. “It’s what we need. We need our voices to be heard, and as a young girl viewing the news and media these days it can be easy to forget my worth and power. I made sure to remind my sisters that they could make change and that they could be not only policy makers and officials yet doctors, astronauts, teachers, lawyers – anything they set their mind to.”

Rising NHS senior Ava Mir was elected by nearly 300 of her citizen peers to be governor of a mythical 51st state as part of the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) Empire Girls State program.

Ava passionately reflected on her experience at Girls State, both at the event and to the Journal, calling her time in Brockport inspiring and transformative.

“When I found out I was selected for the program I was ecstatic, yet little did I know that I would be creating lifelong bonds with girls from across the state, as well as would have learned as much as I did about politics, government, and about myself,” she said.

The program, which lasted from July 3 through the 9, assigned participants to a party, Nationalist or Federalist, upon arrival. The girls then joined one of nine imaginary counties, named after nine powerful women: Albright, Angelou, Anthony, Earhart, Ginsburg, Keller, Ride, Parks, and Tubman.

“These nine women all faced some form of adversity yet were living proof that women can be trailblazers: strong, determined, and eager to pave the way for other women to succeed,” Ava said. A spirit of sisterhood and support ran through the sessions, with citizens empowering one another so that the group as a whole could thrive, she added. “We made the most progress and accomplished the most during the week when we worked together, had an open mind, and considered various perspectives on issues.”

The girls ran elections, learned proper parliamentary procedures, spent hours drafting their own bills with committee, and even held legislative sessions. Political parties held rallies, campaigned, learned chants and dances, and performed skits, said Ava. “All in all [we] came together to help eachother grow and learn.”

Empire Girls State gave Ava a glimmer of hope for the future, she said, that there are girls interested in politics and government and eager to make change, just like her.

“It was so inspiring to work with the most driven, kindest souls doing what we loved,” she said.

“We are always told we are the future, yet we are not the future…we are the now. It is up to us, both young girls and boys to create the future we want by getting involved and learning about our government and policy, whether that’s by attending Girls and Boys State or by making change in the local community.”