“The best thing that comes out of the Y’s Youth & Government and Mock Trial programs is that kids learn to think critically, practice their research and presentation skills and get used to speaking in front of other people. They overcome being shy,” says Kiana Cunningham, the Madison Area YMCA’s associate teen director who teaches both 10-week classes that provide hands-on learning experiences about leadership opportunities in civics.

Kiana shares the excitement that teens in the Mock Trial program experience. “They become really passionate about their topics,” she says, noting that the class takes work. “They learn the necessary skills—and learn what is expected of them—and they deliver.”

“Mock Trial really helped me a lot with being persuasive in my arguments and with public speaking,” says 12-year-old Helen Kilman who participated in the program last fall. “I practiced research skills and learned about reputable sources and not reputable sources,” says the Madison Junior School 7th grader who is a regular Washington Post reader and NPR listener. “I love doing debates. It’s really cool to be part of it and see it all in action,” she says, adding that Kiana had a big part in making the program “awesome.”

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In session now through April the Youth & Government program for 6th-12th graders helps teens develop research and critical thinking skills needed for bill writing and debate and provides opportunities to take on roles such as plaintiff, defendant and witness. The class culminates in a Presentation Day where families and friends will be invited to attend an oral and visual presentation of the bills the teens worked on. The bills are then hung up at the Y’s Boszhardt Family Teen Center located at the Y.

“In Youth & Government, one of our main goals is to identify important issues in our own community that we would like to improve or fix,” says Kiana. “Teens learn how to identify a problem, as well as create and defend their solution. They learn how to properly debate--how to respectfully and thoughtfully argue their side.” Teens debate one-on-one and team debate. They collaborate on how to write bills, research and brainstorm.

Teens also have the option to attend the New Jersey Youth & Government Conference, a gathering of Youth & Government participants from YMCAs throughout the area, which currently consists of more than 500 students from 26 different schools and branches of the YMCA. Each year, students come together to build and run their own legislative chambers, courts, lobby firms, response committees and press initiatives.

Other teen programs at the Madison Area YMCA include Teen Leaders Club, part of a national teen initiative to promote the core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility that develops a solid character in each individual and create a supportive community environment, inclusive of all people. Key areas of focus include leadership development and community service.

The Y’s 7th Grade Initiative program is a great way to introduce teens to activities such as working out in the Y’s fitness center or playing basketball in the gym for example. Affiliated with the Madison Chatham Coalition, Teen Task Force is an opportunity for teens to collaborate and work on educating their peers about the risks associated with substance use. And, teens are welcome to hang out at the Boszhardt Family Teen Center during the week and attend Teen Scene on Friday nights. Teens can bring friends and make new ones while they connect, explore, experience and try it all.