As they all filed into an auditorium at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., on July 24, the 98 Boys Nation senators chit-chatted amongst themselves about the experiences they shared over the past week.
Their journey together began July 17 when the senators, all from various backgrounds and ethnicities, left their hometowns to come to the nation’s capitol and partake in activities that would set them apart from their peers. While in Washington, D.C., the rising high school seniors took advantage of several opportunities, including:
A meet and greet with President Barack Obama
Tours of various monuments
A wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery
A tour of the Pentagon with a question-and-answer session with Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus
A visit to the Twilight Tattoo – a showcase of Army history with demonstrations and static displays
A visit to Capitol Hill that included meetings with members of Congress and their staff
Although each of the boys had memorable experiences that will last them a lifetime, one in particular carried on a legacy that began in his home state of Mississippi.
Ben Payne, a rising senior at St. Joseph Catholic School in Ridgeland, Miss., was selected as a finalist contending for one of two slots to attend Boys Nation. A vote was taken amongst the Mississippi Boys State participants, and Payne was announced as one of the two winners.
Lauri Stamm Collins, the director of Institutional Advancement at Payne’s school, said she was excited Payne had the opportunity to go. Before he left, Collins shared her experiences of Girls State and Girls Nation with the young man. Like Payne, Collins had the opportunity to represent Mississippi at Girls Nation in 1978 where she also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“I got goosebumps when I saw the picture of him laying the wreath,” she said. “I even made a throwback Thursday picture for my Facebook page with the picture of me laying the wreath on the left and a picture of Ben on the right.”
That image – the one of Payne laying the wreath – was one of the images parents and friends saw in videos that played Friday during the 2015 Boys Nation graduation ceremony.
Commencing with a prayer delivered by Daniel Manley, the Boys Nation Senate chaplain, the assembly went off without a hitch.
Past National Commander Bob Turner and Boys Nation Program Director Mike Buss welcomed the senators and their families to the event. Special guest Mike Moss, Sons of The American Legion National Commander, was also in attendance to convey his well wishes. “There is no other program that the Legion has that touches so many lives,” Moss said.
In his remarks, Buss referred to the preamble of The American Legion Constitution including a few of the principles adopted in 1919 "to foster and perpetuate Americanism, inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation, and safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy."
Buss assured the family members in attendance that the Boys Nation staff upheld those values and passed them down to the senators. In keeping with those traditions, the Legion awarded three junior counselors, who served three years as a junior counselor, with a $1,000 scholarship. The recipients were Jordan Jentz, Graham Sparks and Jerry Wellington Jr.
Buss gave a little background and insight as to why the young men were selected as junior counselors – the ones who spent every waking moment with the senators – year after year, while receiving life experience in lieu of monetary stipends. “These staff members are volunteers, and we can’t pay them enough,” he said. “That’s how dedicated they are to the principles of The American Legion, the Boys Nation program, and to you.”
Upon receiving the award, the three young men had an opportunity to address the crowd. They shared stories of their childhood and presented inspirational quotes. Sparks talked about what it was like growing up as an American on foreign soil. He told the boys stories about how he was picked on because he was different from the other kids. He said the way he was treated worsened once the U.S. began participating in armed conflicts. This led to Sparks doubting himself and even his country at times, driving him to a place of darkness and despair, turning to drugs and alcohol for relief.
The college student went on to talk about how participating in Boys State and Boys Nation after he returned to the states helped him turn things around and renewed his pride in being an American.
“I can’t thank the Legion enough,” Sparks said. “They saved me.”
Sparks closed out his remarks with an inspirational quote, words that he likes to live by –“Be the change you want to see in this world.”
Scholarships were also presented to Boys Nation president Aravind Byju, vice president Peter Spectre, president pro tempore Solomon Brown, and secretary of the senate Rene Petit.
The senators said they will never forget the time they spent together, not even when they return home to their friends and family.
Max Parsons, a Boys Nation senator from South Carolina, said it meant a great deal to him to have the opportunity to participate. “I am humbled to be able to represent a thousand other guys from my state. While here I learned that there is a problem in our government. The paradigm does not match what we deserve as Americans, and I feel a greater responsibility to try to change the system and work with it to implement change that transcends political ideology, religion, race, background and culture, and is indicative of the burden of freedom that our founding fathers drew up in the constitution.”
Michael McDowell of Houston expressed his gratitude to the Legion for allowing him to participate in Boys Nation. McDowell wrote in his selection essay that he wanted to attend Boys Nation because he was struggling with the decision to either pursue a career in politics or continue his passion of serving the Lord and go into ministry. While in D.C., McDowell had the opportunity to soak up a plethora of knowledge that will enhance his understanding of the government and how it works, thus helping him find his calling.
“Coming here helped me confirm that I am supposed to go into law and politics, and in that way it has changed my life," he said. "Before I came here, I knew hardly any Parliamentary procedure. Now I know a lot, and I can take that back to my student council."
Buss said it is stories like these that keep the program alive.
“You could have all stayed home this past week chilling out, working or hanging with friends,” Buss said. “But you are some of the young people that stand out above their peers. It is moving to see your innate desire to excel and be the best that you can be, while displaying a love of God and country. Carry forth the legacy and honor that is The American Legion.”