West Virginia’s Capitol Complex played host to roughly 1,000 children from schools across the state Thursday to engage with legislators and state leaders on issues that impact youth and families.
Our Children, Our Future, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 177 community organizations, schools and churches, held its largest-ever Kids and Families Day Thursday to introduce elementary, middle and high school students to their local senators and delegates, as well as to allow them the chance to hear from state leaders like Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Senate President Bill Cole, former U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin and Senate minority leader Jeff Kessler.
“The real purpose of today is not the big rally; it’s that every single group that’s coming called their senators and delegates and asked for a face-to-face meeting,” said Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. “Today is not about watching politics — today is about doing politics.”
Nearly 1,400 students were expected to attend Thursday’s event, but Smith said that number was closer to 1,000 due to continued school closings in the state. Our Children, Our Future plans to hold a “make-up day” for the event on Feb. 24 to give children who missed Thursday’s event the opportunity to attend a similar, smaller event.
According to Karen Williams, interim president of Our Children, Our Future, the coalition has championed 18 major legislative victories in the last three years, spearheaded by more than three dozen legislators from both parties. Our Children, Our Future has established 10 legislative platforms for this year, including reforming children’s mental health care in the state, opposing five-day-a-week child care centers, opposing right-to-work, expanding broadband access and increasing access to tamper-roof pseudoephedrine to curb meth-making. The coalition is also pushing for legislation that would give those with non-violent felonies on their records an opportunity to regain their driver’s licenses and find employment, and policy changes that would increase the access and affordability of locally grown food in the state.
Our Children, Our Future also supports expanding after-school programs and making schools more available for after-school use, as well as supporting reforms that would encourage more investment in community-based programs for juvenile reform.
“We just wanted the chance to recognize the champions who have helped us win these 18 victories over the last few years; we’ve had victories that have provided more than 3 million meals to kids, established 17 million hours of healthy activity that are now part of our school systems … we have now health care for families, more than 169,000 who didn’t have it before — thanks to Medicaid expansion — we now have 127,000 people who have seen raises at work, and $106 million in children’s funding because of victories the coalition has been instrumental in passing,” she said.
State leaders who spoke Thursday touted a number of pending bills poised to address Our Children, Our Future’s platforms. Cole pointed to SB 286, introduced this session to create a commission that would oversee recommendations for coordinating children’s mental health services, and Tennant said her office is introducing legislation that will allow those with state tax refunds of $25 or less to donate that money to the Children’s Trust Fund. Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, told students that SB 315, introduced this session, would expand West Virginia’s broadband Internet service to make it competitive on a global scale.
“Many of these [goals] have already been introduced on the floor this year, which I think is remarkable,” Williams said.
Marla Short, director of Nicholas County Starting Points, brought more than 200 children to participate in Thursday’s event. For Short, the event serves to keep children’s advocates connected to issues close to their hearts, including bills like SB 146, which would prevent child care centers from being forced to operate five days a week and offer them more flexibility to create models that can better withstand state funding cuts.
“It’s so important for families and kids to be able to advocate for themselves, to be able to talk to their senators and delegates and to voice their needs,” she said. “Legislators need to know these are the seeds we are planting for our future; we are here, and these children are learning how important it is to be involved. Grassroots efforts are so huge.”
Greg Whitt, 15, said he believes being involved in government early not only benefits kids who are interested in issues that impact them in their daily lives, but helps them grow into more informed adults who are more likely to stay engaged.
“I wanted to hear about the mental health of our youth, because I myself have struggled with mental health issues, and so I think it’s important that we do change the system,” Whitt said. “[Events like this] help us prepare to be adults — we can’t just go into the adult world not knowing anything; we have to be prepared.”