2017-08-02 / School News

Local teens attend Girls State

by Kate Evans

2017 Rhododendron Girls State participants from Morgan County-Grace Watson, Morgan Golden and Hannah High-are pictured with Girls State leadership counselor and American Legion Auxiliary member Debbie Fox (second from right) at the event. 2017 Rhododendron Girls State participants from Morgan County-Grace Watson, Morgan Golden and Hannah High-are pictured with Girls State leadership counselor and American Legion Auxiliary member Debbie Fox (second from right) at the event. Berkeley Springs High School upcoming seniors Hannah High, Morgan Golden and Grace Watson represented Morgan County as delegates to the 2017 American Legion Auxiliary Rhododendron Girls State this summer at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Like Boys State, Girls State teaches girls about government, the election process and democratic institutions along with leadership, citizenship and patriotism.

Girls State delegates learn about their rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities as a citizen and are trained to operate the city, county and state government to which they are elected during the week.

West Virginia’s Rhododendron Girls State started in 1941 and moved from West Virginia University’s Jackson Mill to Wheeling in 1996. Between 350 and 400 young women attend annually.

One girl’s experience

Hannah High said she really enjoyed meeting new people at Girls State and making friends from all over West Virginia. She liked having the opportunity to speak in front of others at the camp, which helped her public speaking skills. High also really liked hearing Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Senator Joe Manchin and other government officials speak at the event.

High ran for West Virginia Treasurer at Girls State, but lost her party’s primary election. She was later elected as a school board official. High also helped Golden in her campaign for State Agriculture Commissioner and Watson in her bid for another county’s board of education seat.

High encouraged other high school juniors to attend the program if they are interested in politics or a government career or meeting new people.

High wants to be a teacher and is hoping to attend Glenville State College. She plans to major in elementary education and take special education courses and wants to do sign language in her career.

High is involved in the Berkeley Springs High School Bullying Prevention Club, the Morgan County Partnership’s Morgan County Youth Coalition and the high school book club. She also is on the high school volleyball and softball teams.

The program

Rhododendron Girls State Director and American Legion Auxiliary member Michelle Sirbaugh said guest speakers addressed the girls on Sunday classes like leadership, college prep, public speaking and chorus were offered.

Girls filed for office on Monday and start their campaigns. Elections are held Wednesday and girls are sworn into office on Thursday. The Girls State legislature goes into caucus and writes bills which they pass or send back for revision, Sirbaugh said.

On Flag Day they honor female veterans and tell the story of the poppy and how it honors those that have fought and served their country. A Thursday evening friendship circle recognizes girls with family members that have served or who are presently serving in the military.

Girls State citizens publish a daily newspaper and interview guests. There is always something for someone to do, Sirbaugh said. If girls aren’t running for office, they help their peers with their campaigns. There is also free time for swimming and other recreation.

“It’s an awesome week -- it really is. It’s a once-in-alifetime opportunity and one of the most prestigious leadership in government programs in the country,” Sirbaugh said.

Grew up with Girls State

Sirbaugh, who is from Berkeley Springs, grew up with the program. Her mother Irene Weber was a program counselor for many years and then served as Girls State Director for 17 years from 1997-2013. Sirbaugh was elected Girls State Director when her mom stepped down. Weber still serves as office manager.

Sirbaugh taught leadership at Girls State for five years and also attended Girls State in 1979 as a citizen. Sirbaugh said the program was life-changing for her.

The impact

Girls State instructs girls on government leadership, teaches them how government works and gives girls public speaking tools so they can be successful, Sirbaugh said. They also develop lasting friendships that week.

High school juniors are eligible to attend Girls State. An American Legion Auxiliary committee interviews and selects candidates to attend that are recommended by high school counselors, she said.

Sirbaugh said the program couldn’t happen without the help and support of local auxiliary units that select and keep involved with the girls. Around 45 to 50 Girls State staff work to give the girls “a week that they’ll never forget.” Many staff asks to return every year because they enjoy the camp so much.

Very rewarding

Local American Legion Auxiliary member Debbie Fox is in her 11th year as a counselor and leadership instructor at Girls State. Fox said that the program has been very rewarding and lifechanging for her. The program has helped her with public speaking and improved her leadership skills. Girls State also keeps her young as she spends time with 30 to 40 girls who teach her the latest dance steps and teen lingo.

Girls Nation

Two members of the American Legion Auxiliary Rhododendron Girls State are selected to represent West Virginia annually at the American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation, which is held in Washington, D.C. Girls State and Girls Nation participants are eligible for several possible scholarships.

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