I loved my youth sports experiences growing up in St. Francis, Minnesota. I didn’t play 70 games a year like many of our youth do today, as it was still common to play a different sport each season.

I learned leadership values and teamwork, but primarily through sports.

I remember thinking in ninth grade that speech and debate wasn’t the “cool thing to do,” from a peer pressure standpoint.

Let’s make sure we dispel that myth.

Our Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government program started 68 years ago, comprised of the youth House and Senate, and a youth Governor.

It’s a jewel.

I have attended the last couple of years, and I’m amazed to see 2,000-plus students simulating the model Assembly and experiencing true civic engagement. It puts these young leaders in a mock leadership position, where they can understand the tradeoffs of government. If they invest in this, what are the consequences, good and bad?

Laying a foundation for young learners to become active, engaged civic leaders is the essence of the program.

I’m not going to make the mistake I personally made when it comes to my own kids. Next year, my daughter is eligible.

My hope for my own kids, who play sports, is to expose them to a more diverse set of learning experiences. What you take from opportunities like Youth in Government are transferrable for your whole life. And the more you can get out of your comfort zone and work on persuasive skills, it’ll come back to benefit you time and time again.

Not having that experience, it took me fairly deep into my career to become an effective public speaker.

Maybe that could have been accelerated if I participated in the Youth in Government program.

I recently read an article in the sports section about fourth grade basketball and how much is too much, and how soon is too soon? We spend hours in a gym or at the baseball field. But how much time do we invest in teaching our children how our democracy works and what part they play in that democracy? If we plant the right seeds, they can be far more effective leaders, and they could positively impact our nation or the world.

The last two years, at the kickoff dinner, I’ve been able to sit with the elected student governor. I am blown away by those students. So articulate, so earnest, so engaging.

Really bright.

What you find, as kids engage in Youth in Government, they tend to stick with the program, and it builds on itself, and that’s where probably some of the real value comes from. You’re building on skills, and confidence, and becoming acquainted with real social issues, and how they’re debated, discussed and perhaps resolved, in a state and federal context.

For me, the program is a huge source of pride.

It’s probably on par with our very best youth development programs – not just at the Y – but statewide.