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Congressional Compassion

July 30, 2012, 9:59 PM by David Brown

Congressional Compassion
VERMILLION, SD -

The most recent Gallup poll shows the United States Congress has an approval rating of just 17 percent.

With both major political parties blaming one another for the problems in Washington, a small group of South Dakota high school students are engaged in their own Congress. And they're hoping the lessons they learn in session can translate to the real world.

The questions are direct, not confrontational. And the answers are encouraged, not chastised. It's not Capitol Hill, but for this group of 13 juniors and seniors, the South Dakota Youth Congress gives them a reason to speak up.

"Everybody's voice is getting heard, which is really nice," West Central High School senior Elizabeth Renner said. "It actually feels like a democracy. It's not all the partisan anger and everything."

Renner will be able to vote in November. She's excited for the opportunity to put her feelings in the ballot box because she's not oblivious to what's happening in Washington.

"As a teen today, you see our country really isn't getting anywhere by everyone yelling at each other," Renner said.

"This isn't between two parties or two sets of ideas," Burke High School senior Alex Sachtjen said. "We're going to talk on the idea instead of arguing back and forth."

Sachtjen won't be able to vote this November. But he's well aware of how the real Congress works, having been a Senate page for John Thune.

"It's a very good experience if you want to learn about the issues in South Dakota," Sachtjen said.

And the topics these kids are discussing are ones that pertain to them. Youth Issues is the focus of this year's Congress, an annual meeting between teens from different schools. They'll write up a report at the end of the session.

"They live in Sioux Falls or they live in Rapid City or they live in Milbank," Rebecca Andrew of the Chiesman Center For Democracy said. "And so, hopefully, they can go back and say, 'These are some things we need to try and look at in our community and what can we do to make our community better.'"

It's hard to be idealistic in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. But the Youth Congress, which formed in 1998, is steering these kids toward compromise instead of conflict.

"I think it's great to see what's working in different schools and what's not, and what we can use from their ideas and their buildings and use them in our schools," Colman-Egan senior Patience Lunday said

"It's almost funny how some of the problems are very similar where some, such as parking, are not an issue in my small town," Sachtjen said.

They can laugh about it now, but these kids are smart enough to know the real world isn't as carefree. And while there may be a certain naïveté as they finish up high school, they hope their generation can provide the change to all the negativity.

"It's not so much pointing fingers or, 'You're wrong' or, 'You're right,'" Lunday said. "It's more so just putting ideas out on the table and seeing what we can do to make them stronger and support them together."

Lunday is well aware her name is a virtue.

"If I had a nickel for every time I heard a pun about my name, I would be a millionaire," Lunday said.

But she also knows she and her other Congressmen and women will be richer for the experience.

"It's showing that the younger generation is willing to be more open-minded and work with each other to figure out solutions for our issues," Lunday said.

"I'm going to be a little more cautious and I'm going to look at the issues first and make sure I'm informed instead of just following a party idea or agenda," Renner said.

It's idealistic and it's optimistic. But it's the solution they decided together.

This year's Congress is over, but any student, teacher or school administrator may nominate someone to go. Once nominated, they have to fill out an application form. Learn more about the Youth Congress program online.

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