Authored by Nityam Rathi, Former Salt Lake County Youth Government Mayor and Commission On Youth Member
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines government as the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state or its constituents. I define it as a group of people who, all politics aside, pour their heart, blood and sweat into fighting for issues they are eager to solve in hopes of putting the public on-track to a better future. To me it has always been very interesting to see how the people in the government, despite disagreeing significantly on some key issues, are still able to maintain their desire to find the best for those they govern by finding a way to look past their differences. America has become among the strongest, most powerful, and influential countries in the world due to our government’s ability to accomplish goals in a typically peaceful, non-violent manner.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve and gain a better understanding of how government works, how to be a better team-player, and work towards fighting for issues I am passionate about throughout my senior year of high school. Serving as the Mayor of the Salt Lake County Youth Council is among my greatest honors and accomplishments- one that has become a part of who I am.
I remember the first day I became connected with those who would soon become my amazing mentors and colleagues. I walked into a large auditorium at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center for the annual Youth Leadership Summit, and was amazed at what I saw: individuals of virtually all backgrounds imaginable discussing ways to make our community a better place to live. I didn’t know anyone there, so I sat next to another student who, like me, was overdressed for the Summit, and we began conversing. It was amazing how the two of us, despite attending different schools, taking very different classes, and participating in incredibly different extracurricular activities; could become friends within minutes (he later joined me on the County Youth Council). I soon experienced the same fate with almost everybody else in the room. We were able to joke about school rivalries in something as “serious” as football or as trivial as who could eat more slices of pizza, yet could maintain a meaningful, optimistic tone when it came to our community’s well-being. Instantly, I was hooked.
About two weeks later was our first service project as a cohesive group. We took part in the Burrito Project in downtown Salt Lake City, where we would prepare burritos and personally deliver them to homeless individuals. Rarely before had I taken part in a life-changing experience of that magnitude. All those scenes in movies involving the homeless were nothing close to what I saw that night.
First off, I was truly impressed by the unity of us volunteers that night. Some lived in the poorest parts of the downtown area, while others lived in the mansions of Draper; some did not speak English as a first language, while others knew no languages beyond English; some were homeschooled, while others attended private or charter schools. Nevertheless, we all had an intensifying flame inside of us that encouraged us to dedicate one night of our lives to wandering the dark, lively streets of downtown Salt Lake City and seeking homeless individuals.
Now comes the part when we actually delivered the burritos. I didn’t think much of it when I started, but that would change very soon. As we arrived at the first shelter, my senses stimulated to a state of near shock. I saw men of all ages despairingly drinking and smoking; while a few who were intoxicated into oblivion were hunched over, regurgitating the little food they had worked so hard to obtain. I heard them shouting caustic remarks to one another, accusing each other for who knows what; and even some muttering pleas for help and forgiveness in their sleep. I smelled a mix of vomit, alcohol and cigarette smoke, as well as unwashed clothes. Surprisingly, though, they responded with a coherent sense of gratitude as we handed them the burritos we prepared and wished them well. In fact, as I looked into the eyes of the men and women, I saw a rugged individualism worn and torn with wear, but also a sense of determination and hope. Right away, I began to wonder- how did these people end up in the situation they were in? As I overheard a conversation between a heroin addict and a Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD, it felt as though a new ray of insight had entered my naïve mind. While I used to think at a very young age that only those who didn’t try hard in school ended up homeless, I learned that many of them made no mistake of their own. Rather, they were misled by their “friends”, simply had nowhere to turn besides a life built upon drugs, or were war veterans shunned from society and the benefits they deserve.
This single experience enabled me to acknowledge a few of society’s pitfalls: harmful substances within the reach of an unaware audience, inadequate supplies/resources to help those led astray, and that the issue of homelessness is far graver than I knew ever before. Nevertheless, I am glad that through being on this Council, I could go far past the first dimension of just knowing a problem exists and into the second dimension of seeing the problem in action. Now, I don’t have a well-constructed solution to these issues (that would be Nobel Prize worthy!), but at least I can say with great confidence that I could learn so much without actually experiencing the problem.
Moving onto January 2016: our second meeting as a group. This was the month we would be holding elections for the recently vacated spots of Mayor and Deputy Mayor of the Youth Council. I knew from the moment I finished volunteering in the burrito project and after our first meeting that I wanted to play a bigger role. I wanted to use my expertise and seniority (I was among the older members of the council) to steer the group in a new direction. Long story short, I was elected Mayor. Right away, I led our group as we planned our next service activity: a fun, educational activity with the youth at the Midvale City Road Home Shelter.
As we know, such youth usually do not receive what a lot of us consider a ‘normal’ childhood despite the strong efforts of homeless shelters. Many of them are raised by a single parent, or were abandoned by both; they may be abused, verbally and/or physically, by a parent so addicted to a substance that they are unable to function in society; or they may have never felt the enlightenment seep into their mind as they read a book for the first time. Any one of these is truly unimaginable, yet there’s not just one child who experiences these- there are thousands upon thousands- and the consequences of each can last a lifetime. My primary goals for this activity were to have fun with the children at the shelter and show them that their curiosity is the key to a whole new world, while showing them how much fun reading and STEM can be. The evening started with me reading to the children The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf. Afterwards, the Youth Council and some extra volunteers helped the children make their own houses out of Graham Crackers, Nutella, Marshmallows and Frosting. Finally, the children ate their creations! Cleaning up after hyper kids was pretty great, too.
It was truly phenomenal to see how a simple, fifteen-page picture book could stimulate their curiosity and STEM-thinking to such a degree. Looking into each of their eyes was a treat in itself. Rarely had I seen so much excitement when it came to fulfilling an assignment, but these children were thrilled to do so, and many had even asked if they could make a second house. If these children could just have one little push, every day, to think outside-the-box, and someone to appreciate their creativity (regardless of how big or small), they could have the same confidence many of us did when we were young. With this confidence, the sky’s the limit as to what can be accomplished. I’m hopeful that they will also one day give back to the community that made them such great, intelligent persons.
Now you have had insight into two of my highlights in Youth Government, but there’s more! By being on this Youth Council, I had several opportunities to meet with hundreds of other motivated, altruistic, and brilliant people. I attended the ‘Day at the Legislature’ event at the Utah State Capitol and the Youth Leadership & Activism Conference. It was great to see how members of diverse council groups could each individually contribute to the hectic environment surrounding politicians during the legislative session. I had the unique opportunity to meet with members of the House of Representatives, Representatives from Districts all across Utah, County Councilmembers, District Attorney Sim Gill, Mayor Ben McAdams, Lt. Governor Spencer J. Cox, Dan Buettner, and members of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. Additionally, I provided valuable insight in a Mock Committee Hearing where I participated in a heated debate about “Body-worn Cameras”, among several other informative workshops. I was also invited to and attended a SLCo Council Meeting at the Council Chambers, where I met key figures in our society (DA Sim Gill, Councilmember Amy Winder Newton, and Mayor McAdams); and collaborated with the Mayor to set up pinwheels in regards to Child Abuse Prevention Month.
You may be wondering why I am telling you all this, and that’s a good question! Well first, I get to reflect upon how amazing of a year it has been to serve as both a member and the Mayor of the SLCo Youth Government. I truly grew as a person. As I mentioned before, I saw things I had only heard of in the past, which has made me a much stronger, more mature and passionate individual. There’s a huge difference between hearing that a problem exists and facing it firsthand. It is very sad to see a child whose parents don’t love him/her, for example, but in the long run it will only strengthen your desire to help that child. It is my wish that as I embark on future endeavors I remain an advocate for resolving these issues I observed firsthand, and leave a lasting impact on a scale beyond that of the community.
Second, I’m hoping that in some capacity, reading this blog has motivated you to get involved in our community. My advice is to find one or two issues that pull at your heartstrings (for me they were homelessness and education), and try to map out a way you can attack it- even if it’s as simple as raising awareness to the issue. If you start early (like… now!), there’s no telling what you can accomplish. Just as people today read about individuals like Mother Teresa, one day we’ll be reading about you!
If you are in Salt Lake County and interested in becoming involved with Youth Government please call 385-468-4500 or email email@example.com. We are looking for 1-2 youth representatives from each town or city throughout Salt Lake county. We are holding our annual Salt Lake County COY Youth Government Summit October 15, 2016 at Wheeler Farm. This is by invitation only. You must call or email the contact above to be sent an invitation. Place is limited.