“Because of YLF, I have gained the strength and knowledge to become a part of a community of disability advocates. I benefitted from the constant discussion with my contacts about where I saw myself in future years and what I envisioned myself doing.  These conversations wouldn’t have happened without the assistance of YLF.  It was the exact push I needed.” Read more of Sara’s experience with the California Youth Leadership Forum here.

In 2003, I was introduced to the Youth Leadership Forum in my home state through a serendipitous turn of events.  While searching for job announcements, my mom discovered an advertisement for the California Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) for Students with Disabilities. She immediately thought of me because she believed that a door would open through this network. My mom brought home the ad and I started working on the application. I didn’t know how much that chance discovery was going to become an opportunity.  As they say, the rest is history.The California YLF identifies students with disabilities who have exhibited leadership skills and equips them with additional training so they may become leaders by example. YLF started in California and has since been replicated in 29 states (The Association of Youth Leadership Forums provides information on all 30 YLF chapters).YLF started out for me as a five-day excursion away from home to participate in the Forum at the California State University, Sacramento.  What I didn’t realize was the wealth of information I would receive such as resources on assistive technology and disability history. The 60 delegates started out as strangers but quickly became friends. These five days were truly transformative because they taught us, the delegates, about ourselves and the next steps in our journey. What developed from these moments was an empowering discussion on independence.

Through the one-week experience, I gained many friends and contacts that would lead me to various opportunities in government. Each day forced us to think critically about our identities and exchange ideas about things we were experiencing at school. Some of these experiences included dealing with denied access, bullying, and the lack of information about our services and activities as young leaders in the advocacy world.

Personally, at this time I was moving from West Covina to Santa Clarita and leaving behind friends I have made over the years. It was very difficult to accept this transition because I didn’t want to live in a new town or make new friends.  However, through the Forum, I gained a new surge of strength that allowed me to move forward with my goals.

My beginnings in America were a distant memory but not an unmemorable one.  When I arrived in America from Poland at age 6, I went directly to Shriners Hospital in Los Angeles to receive surgeries on my hands which I could not get in Poland.  My parents enrolled me into Atid Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish day school. I didn’t speak English or Hebrew and I even lacked the ability to speak my own language. This made it difficult to comprehend my school work.

What was wonderful about Atid was that they offered speech therapy classes so that I could improve my vocal skills. In these classes during school hours, I would practice enunciating certain vocabulary. Another unique thing about the school was the concentration on art and theater performance. From an early age, I was very comfortable speaking and performing in front of large crowds. Maybe this comes from having a creative family but also from my own distinct personality.  The school held talent shows, public speaking games, and art competitions. All of these activities helped me gain self-confidence in my abilities as an artist. I was very fortunate to be part of the school.

Prior to my experience at YLF, I hadn’t received any supportive services at school. I had no information about Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), social security benefits, assistive technology, or any other helpful resources. The only service that I had ever received was speech therapy classes. This was helpful to my development as a young person. In high school I was in honors classes and I had a difficult time passing them. I realize now that it would have been beneficial to have services during elementary and secondary school like the ones that I had in college.

I attended the Forum in the middle of high school so thankfully I was able to implement some resources into my daily school schedule. Some of these accommodations were taking tests in another room and having study hall. I was lucky enough to discover the Forum and be able to network with similar people who had difficulty in school.

Because of YLF, I have gained the strength and knowledge to become a part of a community of disability advocates. After YLF, all of my other work experiences, such as California Health Incentives Improvement Project (CHIIP), California Foundation for Independent Living (CFILC), and the Multicultural Center at Sacramento State (MCC), stemmed from this opportunity.  I benefitted from the constant discussion with my contacts about where I saw myself in future years and what I envisioned myself doing.  These conversations wouldn’t have happened without the assistance of YLF.  It was the exact push I needed.

My family also played an important role in my development. My family is very creative and that influence has had a positive impact on my life.  My individuality as a person has always been not to sit still physically or mentally.  When I finally found my voice through the arts, theater, and poetry, I found my beginnings in disability activism.  All these paths eventually led me to Washington, DC.  From this journey I’ve learned that while it might take a long time, as long as you don’t lose focus, you will get to where you need to be one way or another.

I encourage other youth to get involved with the YLF if it’s available in their state.  Each YLF has a diverse way of leading its program but all chapters offer opportunities similar to the CA YLF model.  The main focus is to education and empower future generations to be able to advocate for others and themselves on various issues like accessibility, independence, and self-esteem.  Youth need that push from someone other than their parents or guardians.  They need to find mentors that will help them find a distinctive path for their lives.

I end with this quote:

“You can’t hit a home run unless you step up to the plate. You can’t catch fish unless you put your line in the water. You can’t reach your goals if you don’t try.”

– Kathy Seligman

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Written by Sara R. Vogler

Sara R. Vogler, Intern at the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy