Shaping enthusiasm for public service

IMG_0463_jlI can clearly remember the first time that I visited the Lincoln Memorial, and how the marble seemed to soften the sting of the sweltering heat. Monuments, and the history they ­represent, can make an indelible impression on an individual.

While almost twenty years have passed since I participated in the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives’ Youth Day in Springfield and the Youth Tour in Washington, D.C., it is not surprising to me that both experiences are still vivid in my memory. Although some of the friendships that were ignited through those oppor­tunities are still thriving today, these programs are much more than attempts to help youth meet new people.

My life is still being shaped by the enthusiasm for public service that I encountered and by the valuable lessons about government that I learned along the way. Cooperatives are making an important investment in an effective program that illustrates to youth how they can make a positive impact in their community and throughout Illinois.

I am convinced that what makes Youth Day effective is the ­“grass-roots” support it receives through each electric and telephone cooperative. Funding is always ­important, but even more important than financial support is the ­positive reinforcement each ­student receives from co-op ­employees and other community leaders who set a positive example and make time in their schedules to implement Youth Day. They serve as chaperones, ­chauffeurs, tour guides and ­mentors. They do whatever is necessary to make the trip a safe and ­memorable ­experience. It makes sense that the value of the experience increases when our youth are surrounded by role ­models who deeply care about the future of our communities.

Today, as the manager of four state historic sites in Springfield, it is a ­privilege for me to be part of the program for Youth Day. We welcome Youth Day participants to our historic sites, help them learn about the past and encourage them to reflect on what history offers to us today. It is our sincere hope they will feel inspired by what they encounter and motivated by what they learn. Some of the students who attend Youth Day have previously visited our state historic sites during a field trip, but many of the participants are visiting these important places for the first time thanks to a co-op community.

One of the highlights of Youth Day involves gathering participants at the Old State Capitol Historic Site in Representative Hall, the legis­lative chamber where Abraham Lincoln worked during the winter of 1840 in his fourth and final term as a state representative. Students not only visit the room where Lincoln worked, the setting for his famous House Divided speech in 1858, but they sit at the reproduction desks that furnish the historic room. We connect youth to history in this way to help them feel closer to the past.

Although the program changes slightly each year, once the students are seated we typically discuss Illinois history and invite Youth Day par­ticipants to consider the power of their voice. During the last few years we have connected lessons in history to topics such as the skills politicians need to be ­successful, the issues that divide or unite our communities, the examples that participants set for younger ­individuals and the way they define their rivals. The topics vary but the discussions are always ­rewarding, enhanced each year by a handful of participants who hang around afterward to ask an additional question or make a final point.

Justin Blandford, is the Site Manager for four state-owned historic sites in Springfield, Ill. He is responsible for an array of history programs that have attracted new audiences and sources of funding. Email
Justin Blandford, is the Site Manager for four state-owned historic sites in Springfield, Ill. He is responsible for an array of history programs that have attracted new audiences and sources of funding. Email

Co-ops are engaged in politics to ensure a bright future for their ­members. Youth Day is not only a ­strategic investment in the ­political process but also an asset that enhances leadership development in our ­communities. As co-ops continue to reach important milestones, it is important to reflect on the remarkable value of Youth Day and the lives it has enhanced over many years.

Visiting the Lincoln Memorial on the Youth Tour in 1994 was an awe-inspiring experience for me. Let me close by thanking the co-ops for ­sending me. I’ll do my best to make sure our state historic sites continue to make a positive impression on those who attend Youth Day in Springfield.