Several local high school students gathered last week to share their summer experience gaining first-hand knowledge of the political system.
American Legion Newport Harbor Post 291, and its ladies auxiliary unit, hosted a Boys and Girls State Dinner Friday to recognize the students and hear about their experiences spending a week in summer creating and running their own city, county and state governments.
"It was really fun and interesting hearing other's stories and perspectives and what they got out of it," said Estancia High School senior Hayden Swift, 17. "It sounded like everyone got a lot out of it."
Post and Auxiliary Unit 291 sponsored 25 boys and nine girls from Sage Hill, Newport-Mesa Unified, Irvine Unified and other school districts to attend the American Legion's Boys State and Girls State programs at Cal State Sacramento for the boys and Claremont McKenna College for the girls.
Each boy was assigned to the Whig or Federalist parties and immediately divided up cities based on their dorm room assignments, said Post 291 Commander Jess Lawson, who is involved with the program at the state level.
The program is similar at Girls State, said Cynthia Culp, the Auxiliary Unit 291 marshal.
For each "city," a city clerk is chosen, city council elections are held and then council members start appointing key positions, like police chief and city manager, and writing laws and procedures, Lawson said.
By the end of the first day, each city is functioning and the process continues for the county and state governments, he said.
Students don't just adopt titles, but fulfill duties. The supreme court, for example, hears cases, politicians present platforms and the police chief upholds laws.
Each student is given $20 for campaign contributions to pay fines or make bail if they are "arrested."
Hayden said he was elected to the city council on the platform of being related to Taylor Swift. The council liked the idea so much they passed a law on it: Anyone in the city boundaries had to sing Taylor Swift songs — at all times.
Hayden, who is also part of Youth in Government, said he already knew about state government, but he got a good understanding of how things work at the county and city levels.
During the week, the students, who are all considered good performers recommended by their schools, get a real understanding of the political process, but also gain confidence and make lifelong friends, Culp said.
The program has a deep impact on the students, Lawson said, pointing to the stack of letters boys have written to him about how they've made friends for life, want to exercise their right to vote and finally feel like Americans.
"You've got 16 year olds that are driven enough by their experience to sit down and write me two to three page letters," he said.
Hayden said he discovered his own political ideas and values through the experience.
"I just found myself, my political voice," he said. "I put a lot into that week and had a really great time. It definitely shaped me into the political person I am."