El Paso del Norte Youth Leadership Forum

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EL PASO — Place yourself in the shoes of a graduating high school senior, approaching the real world unaware of what to expect. Now place yourself in the shoes of a graduating high school senior with a disability. As appealing the idea of college may seem, most graduating students with disabilities lack the confidence and resources they need to get there.

The El Paso del Norte Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) is a local community event that happens once a year in October. The forum has been around for 12 years strong and is going on its 13th year.

An estimated 50 students with disabilities from area high schools in the El Paso and Hudspeth counties participate in the event. The students in attendance range in ages 16-22. The forum goes on for a three-day weekend at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel located right outside the UTEP campus. Participants are required to stay two nights and three days without parents.

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Jamie Martinez, 23, participated in the 2008 YLF and has since volunteering to help other students with disabilities overcome their misconceptions and fears about attending college. Photo credit: Adrienne Acosta

The purpose of the forum is to help students with disabilities develop an appreciation of the past, develop an understanding of the present and to develop a belief in the future.

Throughout the forum participants learn the history of disability as a culture, explore the principles of being a leader and participate in new experiences. Each individual creates a “personal leadership plan” to help them use the right resources to reach their goals. People with disabilities are capable of living a “normal” life so why not try and plan for it.

The focus of the forum is not only for the participants but for their parents as well. The idea is to test the student to see if they are prepared to be independent and to see if the parent has done enough to prepare them. As soon as the students arrive at the hotel they are immediately removed from their comfort zone. Students learn about themselves as they get to know others that face the same issues as them.

Rick Razo, one of the founding members of the forum, says, “The issue of disability has to be addressed [first hand]because for a lot of kids, that’s what’s holding them back. We address it up front, we say let’s put it on the table…”

The weekend is full of team building activities and resourceful presentations about living independently, working, and going to college. An important part of the weekend is when YLF students take a trip to the UTEP campus. They get the opportunity to see what college is like and experience what the university has to offer. For some students it’s the first time to they’ve ever been to the campus.

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Jamie Martinez and Ashley Melero making their way through the UTEP campus as part of the forum experience in 2010. (Courtesy of Jamie Martinez)

Students hear speeches from successful individuals with disabilities in the community. They address any questions participants may have and inform them of the helpful resources they have available.

Mike Dee, co-host of the Breakfast Club morning show for local radio station Power 102.1, has been a speaker at the forum for six years. He enjoys speaking at the event because he too was in the same situation.

Mike Dee lost his sight at the age of 18, during the last year of high school, leaving him visually impaired. He continued his education away from home and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. Following his graduation, Mike traveled back home to El Paso to continue his career in radio and run his own production company.

“I know what it’s like to wonder how you’re going to get through college, it’s tough,” said Mike. “YLF helps students plan for their future and makes them aware that it isn’t impossible.”

Edgar Pulido, 25, YLF participant of 12 years, says the forum has helped him become more social. Pulido’s disability is speech impairment and poor hand motor skills. As a delegate of the forum, many participants aren’t aware that Pulido was bullied in school. YLF has helped him develop the confidence he needed.

“Back in high school I was shy but
now I talk to more people. YLF taught me to not by shy, to stand up to people
and to stay positive for sure,” said Pulido.

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