Sixteen Whitehall-Yearling High School students were the first from Whitehall to participate in the Ohio YMCA Youth & Government program, held April 11-13 at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Columbus.

"It was a super-fun event," said Whitehall-Yearling freshman Sam McQuate, 15.

In preparing for it, McQuate said, students helped critique each other's work and collaborated on preparing eight different pieces of legislation.

Whitehall-Yearling's participation in the Youth & Government program largely was possible thanks to the effort of Geral Leka, a second-year social-studies teacher who also has served as the boys soccer coach for the past four years.

"Having the experience of advising the Franklinton Preparatory Academy delegation for three years and witnessing the positive impact that this experience had on students from Franklinton, establishing this program for the students at Whitehall-Yearling quickly became a professional goal of mine upon my employment last year with Whitehall," Leka said.

The first step, Leka said, was to obtain the funds needed to establish the program.

Leka applied for a $500 grant but received $750 from the Whitehall Education Foundation.

McQuate Brokerage Services also donated $300, Leka said.

Students chipped in about $50 each, and other individuals made contributions to cover such expenses as transportation to and from the event, plus food and lodging, Leka said.

Once the funds were secured, Leka said, he identified the students who "would commit significant time after school to the program."

The Ohio YMCA Youth & Government program was established in 1952, but this was the first time Whitehall students had participated, Leka said.

The Whitehall team includes 12 freshmen, one sophomore, two juniors and one senior.

Around 750 students from public school districts throughout Ohio participated in this year's event, which provided students the opportunity to engage in the democratic process by researching, writing, debating and voting on legislative bills, Leka said.

"We were all kind of nervous when we got there but after we met the other students, we were quickly comfortable," said McQuate, the only one of the 16 Whitehall students who is not in Leka's honors-level World Studies class.

McQuate, an honors student in other classes, was invited to participate by his friend and freshman classmate, Roberto Par, 14.

"I enjoyed meeting all the other students (from other districts)," Par said.

McQuate and Par together wrote a bill that required the placement of recycling receptacles in the cafeterias of public schools.

In preparation for the event, students met after school twice a week for about an hour over the past three months.

"They prepared (eight) legislative bills that focused on (issues including) environmental issues, mental-health screenings and educational tax credits," Leka said.

Several of the bills were approved in the House and Senate chambers and signed by the governor, while several others failed at the committee level, simulating the actual legislative process in the Ohio General Assembly, Leka said.

"We researched ideas for what would hold up as a (legislative) bill, then read them to each other," McQuate said.

Leka said he wants to use this year's experience to grow the program next year.

"This was an important founding year for the program and it set high expectations for future years," Leka said.

Next school year, Youth & Government will be offered as an elective course to allow for students to be better prepared, he said.

"The students did a great job of conducting themselves in a respectful manner, engaged with students from various cities and towns of Ohio, and got a unique opportunity to speak with Ohio senators," Leka said.

The students met state Sen. Stephanie Kunze (R-Hilliard) and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French, who administered an oath of office for the students.

"I was honored to meet with students participating in the YMCA Youth & Government program," Kunze said. "This is a wonderful way for high school students to be introduced to the inner workings of state government, make connections and learn from and about others all across our great state.

"It also provides our youth with an opportunity to dream and a way to make a difference in our state," she said. "Several legislative proposals the youth have introduced over the years have actually been enacted into Ohio law."