The Youth Leadership Forum is a three-day overnight conference held not only in Massachusetts, but across the nation. It is ideal for youth with disabilities that intend to grow self advocacy and leadership skills, plan future career goals, and expand their network professionally and socially. This year in Bridgewater Massachusetts we focused on empowering young leaders with disabilities to network, establish disability pride, and grow in their leadership and self-advocacy skills.
After receiving 160 applications from delegates and peer leaders, 41 delegates and 15 peer leaders were chosen to partake in this year’s forum following a professional interview and recruitment process directed by numerous collaborating organizations like:
- The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission
- Easter Seals Massachusetts
- Stavros Center for Independent Living
- Holyoke Community College
- Metrowest Center for Independent Living
- Boston Center for Independent Living
- Center for Living and Working
- Independent Associates
- Roxbury Community College
- Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council
- Work Without Limits
The forum was held from June 24th to June 27th at Bridgewater State University where youth had the opportunity to stay in dorms and experience what it would be like living away from home at a university.
The day before youth arrived, it was time to prepare peer leaders by helping them grasp their role and build their own leadership skills. YLF peer leaders were trained in areas of ableism, intersectionality, advocacy, and of course, leadership. In addition, they staged responding to common scenarios at YLF, reviewed assignments, made welcome signs, wrote songs together, and built unforgettable friendships.
Michael, a 2019 YLF peer leader shared with us what leadership meant to him, and how he hopes that by sharing his own disability, it will help others to see their potential as well.
Michael explained, “Advocating for others. That’s actually another good thing of people knowing I have a disability because I am someone who has gone quite far in life for someone with my disability. And I feel like if people know that I have a disability, especially other people with disabilities, maybe they’ll look up to me and they’ll be like if that person can do it than I can.”
Upon arrival on day two, delegates were welcomed by peer leaders, YLF staff, and collaborators. They also met keynote speakers Regina Snowden (Executive director of PYD), Heidi Holland (STAY Project Director at the MA Department of Mental Health), TSAI and STAY Young Adult Grants, Kathleen Biebel (Deputy Commissioner), the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, and Paul Medeiros (Easter Seals President and CEO).
Throughout the day youth expanded their skills of communication and networking in interactive workshops, and learned about disability pride. Easter Seals Massachusettes Assistive Technology Specialists conducted assistive technology workshops that taught youth about different resources and technologies available like apps related to accessibility, independent living, and community participation. They also led an interactive technology-oriented game of Jeopardy.
Last but not least, delegates participated in an open-mic activity with PYD’s Deep Chinappa and Maureen “Moe” Finnarty. At this point in the day it allowed youth to express themselves and delve into their creative minds by singing, playing instruments, sharing poetry, and putting on comedy skits.
Day three began with a workshop on job-readiness and vocational skills presented by PYD’s career-readiness staff. Following this, the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council presented about employment rights and responsibilities. The skills and information gained in both workshops allowed youth to apply their knowledge during the Career Mentoring Luncheon. Delegates worked hard on group assignments and networked with numerous mentors, as well as met with community members and employers.
The day ended with a workshop on effective financial planning and collaborating with others to brainstorm advocacy projects.
Day four introduced a workshop on public benefits and a Legislative Advocacy Session that featured a panel of influential speakers from the Eleventh Plymouth District, Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, a former YLF Peer Leader and Disability Activist/ Youth Transition Advocate, and a representative from the Boston Center for Independent Living.
After collaborating with delegates and establishing new ideas for legislation, peer leaders presented their ideas to the legislative advocacy panel for feedback.
Following this was the YLF resource fair, where delegates gained new knowledge and the opportunity to meet staff representatives from numerous community resources of greater Boston.
YLF wrapped up with a certificate ceremony that gave delegates and peer leaders the chance to share and reflect on their experience at YLF. A nostalgic video of the forum was shown that featured a slideshow of favorite photos and interviews of YLF participants, which can be watched here.
Susan Nicastro; program director of the Youth Leadership Forum, was thrilled on the outcomes of this year’s YLF.
“The Youth Leadership Forum could not be more aligned with the mission of PYD, and we are deeply honored to have the opportunity to lead this effort. It was fantastic to be able to return to the full 4-day YLF format this year, thanks to the generosity of our dedicated YLF supporters. Being part of making this transformative opportunity available to Massachusetts youth with disabilities has been such a joy for me personally and professionally. We’re looking forward to YLF 2020!”
What was your favorite experience at YLF this year? Comment below and share with us!