Kathleen Kelly and Natalie Black, 17, were sitting through the doldrums of another high school class when the phrase “free trip to Washington” caught their attention.
Their interest piqued, they learned if they attended the American Legion Girls State at the University of Arizona they could later visit Washington, D.C. — a win-win, both girls thought.
While still fuzzy about the details, both grabbed an application — the only two Payson High School juniors to do so.
While neither teen visited Washington, they did experience what they say was a life-changing week.
“It was a spontaneous thought, ‘sure, I’ll sign up,’ but it ended up being the best week of my life,” Black said.
From barely understanding what goes on in Washington to ultimately running their own political campaigns and having midnight discussions about government, democracy and community activism with other attendees, Kelly and Black say their outlook on politics is forever changed.
“It was just a big learning experience,” Kelly said.
The purpose of Girls State, organizers say, is to educate young women about the duties, privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship and to get a clear understanding of how government functions.
For Kelly and Black, who knew little about the political process and rarely discussed their political views, the experience opened their consciousness and gave them confidence to express their ideas.
The event kicked off June 5 at the University of Arizona campus. Shortly after they arrived, the girls were separated from each other and thrown into new groups with teens from around the state.
At first, the talent of other attendees intimated both girls, who wondered if they could hold their own. While Kelly and Black were used to discussing boys, their friends and general gossip back home, at Girls State everyone was talking about real issues.
“In Payson, you feel closed off, but this has broadened my perspective,” Black said.
After being put in groups, the teens set up their own city, county and state governments and administered them according to the laws of their made-up state.
Throughout the process, organizers and guest speakers guide these new citizens through the process, explaining how government works.
Attendees hold elections to fill city and state positions, including town councilor and even animal control officer.
Black said everyone took the elections very seriously and would stay up all night making campaign posters, fliers and writing their speeches.
Candidates held party rallies and debated their positions and then voters decided who would run their city.
When not working on their campaigns, Kelly said attendees talked about issues impacting their towns, from teen pregnancy to poverty.
“We got to have more than just surface conversation,” she said. “Everyone was so intellectual.”
And girls who once appeared intimidating turned into best friends.
Kelly and Black said they maintain close friendships with girls from around the state through text messages and Facebook.
Kelly’s mother, Margie Kelly, said she noticed a huge change in her daughter when she returned.
While Kelly had never taken much interest in politics, she now spoke openly about what she had learned and how she could apply it. Kelly said she now realizes how one vote, one person can make a huge impact on their community.
“It opened my eyes to the fact that the smallest things could affect people around me,” she said. “Even if I only impact one person, it has a domino effect.”
And organizers say inspiring teens to return to the community and enact change is the whole point.
Black is serving as Payson High School’s student body president and a peer counselor this year and Kelly is a LinkCrew member and editor of the yearbook. Both girls have plans to attend college, with Kelly hoping to pursue several degrees, including veterinary science and music at Northern Arizona University. Black would like to play softball and get a bachelor’s in education.
Both girls have signed up to serve as junior leaders at Girls State in 2012.