Pride, democracy, patriotism, growth, inspiration, friendship, and empowerment best sum up the experience of ALA Girls Nation 2016. | 70 Years Later: Celebrating ALA Girls Nation
CONTINUING A LEGACY: 2016 ALA Girls Nation senators pose for a group shot before a meeting with their state senators on Capitol Hill.
ALA Girls Nation is an impressive, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young women across the nation to gain intimate knowledge of how the federal government works before they are of voting age. For seven days in Washington, D.C., the “senators” hold mock senate sessions which require them to write, caucus, and debate bills, campaign for elected offices, elect an ALA Girls Nation president and vice president, and work together to pass legislation.
This year, in between hours-long senate sessions, the girls learned proper flag etiquette; participated in a service project for homeless veterans; heard from Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin; toured the National Mall, where they sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; toured the Pentagon; visited the 9/11 crash site; and witnessed the Twilight Tattoo show.
They also met with members of Congress on Capitol Hill and placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The senators left Washington, D.C. with not only an understanding of how the government works and an appreciation for our nation’s capital, but with a renewed sense of patriotism and appreciation for veterans.
“I definitely feel indebted to the American Legion Auxiliary,” said 2016 ALA Girls Nation Vice President Alexa Holsten of Colorado. “I want to be involved with the ALA. I want to speak to the people in my school, in my community, and in my state and encourage them to get involved in government. I want to empower other people to take steps to change as well.”
Every summer since 1947, two high school juniors from each ALA Girls State program are given the opportunity to represent their state at ALA Girls Nation. This year, for the first time since the early 1980s, all 50 states were represented with the addition of Hawaii. The premier leadership conference also gives these young women the opportunity to hear from other prestigious alumnae who were once in their shoes, make new friends and build lasting memories, and, maybe above all, hear powerful messages on female empowerment that inspire them to be fearless, courageous, and bold leaders.
For New York delegate Sam Aloysius, ALA Girls Nation taught her how to use her voice and inspired her to get more involved with The American Legion Family. “Our theme for homecoming this year is ‘America,’ and I really want to get The American Legion Family involved in the ceremony somehow. I’m going to consider joining ROTC in college; I was never exposed to that until ALA Girls Nation,” she said. “I learned so much from each person here than I have in a long time. Here I learned that I do have great characteristics, but also, how I am going to better myself.”
Here, we break down the seven days of the 70th session of ALA Girls Nation:
The week began as soon as the senators stepped off the bus at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center, where eager junior counselors greeted them and walked them through registration. After checking in, the girls immediately began their service project, Socks of Love for U.S. Vets, a nonprofit organization that provides housing, employment, and counseling to veterans. The girls got to know each other while they stuffed socks with personal hygiene items, snacks, and a handwritten note to be delivered to veterans at U.S. Vets. That evening, they raised their right hands in unison and were officially sworn in as ALA Girls Nation senators before hearing from ALA National Secretary/Executive Director Mary “Dubbie” Buckler, who impressed upon them just how unique the opportunity is.
“You are literally 1 in 20 million. Live each year as the 1 in 20 million that you are. Our nation will be preserved and our freedom protected because of the outstanding leaders you will become,” she said.
Later, during a solemn poppy ceremony, “In Flanders Field” played in the background as the girls took turns one by one placing poppies on a wreath to be presented at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
The senators raised the American flag promptly at 6:45 a.m., signaling the first full day of ALA Girls Nation. As part of an ALA Girls Nation tradition, the girls paid tribute to the military men and women buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Senators Lee Adi of South Carolina, Daniela Suarez of Washington, Genevieve Romero of New Mexico and Julia Nall of Arkansas placed a wreath at the Tomb as their fellow delegates looked on in silence. Immediately following the wreath laying ceremony, they held a patriotic service at the Memorial Amphitheater where they sang and read tributes to servicemembers while other visitors at Arlington National Cemetery looked on.
During the first Senate session, held that evening, the senators elected Senate officials, held committee hearings, and hosted party caucuses for the two parties — the Nationalists (Nats) and the Federalists (Feds). The Feds had the majority for 2016.
In the second Senate session, the ALA Girls Nation senators learned more about the election process, which included hosting political party meetings, selecting keynote speakers for party conventions, along with the election of committee chairmen.
In an unprecedented visit, 2015-2016 American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett joined the senators in a joint session and spoke about the importance of working together and democracy. They also presented socks from the Socks of Love service project to Clift on Lewis from U.S. Vets, who thanked the senators and discussed with them why it should be a priority to care for our nation’s veterans when they need it the most.
That evening, the senators equipped themselves with handheld American flags and headed to the National Mall to showcase their American pride by putting on a patriotic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. After enthusiastically singing “God Bless America,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “America the Beautiful,” they handed out their flags to bystanders and shared cards with information about the American Legion Auxiliary.
The fourth day of ALA Girls Nation brought with it two very rare opportunities — the chance to tour the United States Pentagon and to hear firsthand from a Holocaust survivor.
The girls learned about the five branches of our Armed Forces while on an hour-long, 1.5-mile tour through the Pentagon, which included trivia questions, displays, and artifacts located throughout the building. They also visited the 9/11 crash site and paid their respects at the chapel located inside the Pentagon dedicated to the victims of 9/11.
Later in the day, the senators heard from Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin, who shared her heartbreaking and inspiring story of being persecuted by the Nazis when she was just a few years younger than the girls are now.
A volunteer at the United States Holocaust Museum, Godin continues to tell her story each year to the ALA Girls Nation senators because of a promise she made to the women who helped her survive the concentration camps. She shared how she went from a happy teenager to living in fear when the Nazi soldiers invaded her hometown in Lithuania, and how although she made it out alive, sadly, many of those she loved did not.
Godin, who relocated with her mother to the United States, has chosen to remain positive through her trials and tribulations and reminded the girls “the world is beautiful, even if the people sometimes aren’t.”
Much like the political climate in the “real world,” the energy at ALA Girls Nation was electrifying as the senators campaigned to elect the 70th ALA Girls Nation president and vice president.
Both parties held general election campaigns, gave speeches, created chants to gain support, participated in whistle stops where the senators asked the presidential candidates thought-provoking questions, and participated in an election. In the end, the Feds won with Emmy Bribiesca, Texas, being elected president and Alexa Holsten, Colorado, elected vice president of ALA Girls Nation.
“A lot of girls had come to me at ALA Girls State and told me ‘You’re really making an impact on me, and you’re really doing great things.’ and I figured if I could do that on a state level, then maybe I could do that here at ALA Girls Nation,” Bribiesca said.
Holsten said the opportunity to fail and the experience is what motivated her to run for vice president. “I believe that experience is the way we learn about our passions,” she said. “I’ve learned the most from failure in my life, so I decided to just go for it and if I failed, then I knew I’d gain something from the experience. Dubbie said that ‘loss is just preparation for the next challenge,’ and that stood out to me so much. So, just being able to run and have the opportunity to fail was amazing.”
The delegates saw their roles as ALA Girls Nation senators come alive when they visited Capitol Hill and met with their real-life counterparts to ask questions, present the bills they had written, and get advice.
Olivia Antigua, ALA Junior member and senator from Maryland, said going to Capitol Hill was her favorite experience of the entire week. “We ran into an ALA Girls Nation alumna at the Supreme Court, and she gave us a private tour of the court, the library, and we got to see the basketball court on the top floor above the courthouse — I thought that was pretty cool. We also got to talk to congressional staffers and get their opinions on how you get your foot in the door. It was an amazing experience and I think it’ll stick with me,” she said.
Sam Aloysius also reflected on the chance to visit Capitol Hill and meet with her state senator. “Going to Senator Gillibrand’s office was amazing because our bill was based off of one of her platforms. To be able to give her staff our legislation was insane — someone who works for her could read our bill! Seven months ago, I was just a random girl in New York. I never thought that I’d be writing a bill and be able to take it to the highest court in the land.”
After the senators explored our nation’s capital by visiting the neighboring Smithsonian museums and using their Senate Gallery passes to see a hidden part of the Capitol Building, they held inauguration of the ALA Girls Nation president and vice president on the top floor of the Senate Hart Building. Esther Kia’aina, ALA Aloha Girls State and ALA Girls Nation alumna, and assistant secretary for insular areas for the U.S. Department of Interior, inaugurated President Bribiesca. In her speech, Kia’aina spoke of her experience as an ALA Girls Nation senator and encouraged the girls to dream big.
“ALA Girls Nation opened my eyes to the nature of the world; I was reinvigorated with a sense of purpose,” Kia’aina said. “Thank you to the American Legion Auxiliary for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. Dream your dreams and believe that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
The senators reconvened in their final Senate session to override a veto of a bill, ALA Girls Nation President Bribiesca conducted a bill signing ceremony — complete with a press pool, special pen, and cameras — before officially closing out the 70th session of ALA Girls Nation. The senators then had the opportunity to visit the interactive Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials.
The evening was filled with lots of laughter and celebration during the banquet, commencement, candlelight ceremony, and after-¬party. Sue Ellspermann, ALA Hoosier Girls State alumna, former lieutenant governor of Indiana, and current president of Ivy Tech Community College, spoke to the senators during the commencement ceremony and reminded them to believe in themselves.
Calling on her experience running for lieutenant governor of Indiana, Ellspermann recalled not wanting to campaign, but then she reflected on the opportunity, saying, “If not me, then who? If we aren’t willing to do it — then who will? Of higher offices at state levels and federal levels, women are only 20 percent — and we are not in the minority; we are the majority. Girls, we could truly run the world. You have to believe in yourself.”
The message struck a chord with Olivia Antigua, who will be returning to ALA Maryland Girls State as a junior counselor in 2017.
“I’m definitely going to take the message of female empowerment and help pass it on to other girls — the idea that you can always be a leader, you don’t have to stay silent, and your dreams are actually attainable.”
The experiences and lasting memories of the ALA Girls Nation senators during those seven days in July can hardly be summed up in one article or in just a few words. As Meena Venkataramanan of Arizona said when asked to describe her experience in five words or less, “Five words are not enough.”
“Friendship, love, empowerment, exciting.” — Phylinese Brooks, Illinois“Inspiring.” — Aastha Chandra, Iowa“Girls supporting girls, and America.” — Paige Lawrence, Kansas“Life-changing, spectacular.” — Brooke Koren, California“It’s both intimidating and empowering.” — Madeline Fitzgerald, Connecticut