In Illinois, balancing a place in history with a changing landscape

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As chairman of the oldest American Legion Boys State program, Christopher Benigno recognizes the responsibility that comes with that position.

“There’s a reason they call our program (Illinois) Premier Boys State,” he said. “Started in 1935, so there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that, and you want to give the boys the meaning of what it means to attend Premier Boys State.”

There’s the responsibility of maintaining the program’s high standards while finding ways to make sure today’s youth recognize the opportunities the program provides.

“There’s so many camps out there, and all the sports; I would have to say one of the largest hurdles is, if they’re in a sport, the coaches will not let them take a week off to attend the program. Another hurdle is even having our American Legion posts realize this is one of our best programs. We need to embrace it and really promote the program,” Benigno said.

And there’s the need to keep up with technology. At Illinois, delegates could vote via cell phone on polls during their seminars — should students have constitutional rights, for example, a question posed during a legislative seminar.

“We’re going through that now with our website,” Benigno said. “We took a look at our website and it’s very well thought out and well documents the program informationally, but as far as really grabbing somebody’s attention, it’s not there, so we’re going to be revamping that.”

One selling point at Illinois and other programs is the opportunity for past citizens to come back as junior counselors.

“Coming back to be a junior counselor, I had a great week last year so of course I’d want to come back and also want to try to make kids have a week that was as good as mine,” said Kuzi Zhou, a 2016 Boys State participant who also went on to represent Illinois at Boys Nation.

“It was the greatest week of my life,” Zhou said of his Boys State experience. “… You get to see other people come out of their shells, it actually shapes people for the rest of their lives.”

Ian McCormic, Zhou’s fellow Illinois representative at Boys Nation last year, noted how the week at Boys State gives young men the opportunity to reinvent themselves.

“My experience at Boys State was one that was somewhat riddled with failure, but I took a lot from that,” McCormic said, referring to his failed election bids. “I took a lot of that into my counseling experience.

“… You will fail, there is definitely the possibility of failure. That teaches (the Boys State citizens) to get up.”

Last year’s governor, Kevin Mallady, said he learned a lot from his experience, and he shared that knowledge as a junior counselor this year.

“I learned a lot of things about government that I hadn’t known before, not being super into government. But now I’m definitely way more involved than I ever thought I would be,” Mallady said.

And there’s so much more than even civics to learn at Boys State, Benigno said.

“The mantra is ‘a week that shapes a lifetime,’ and it truly is. It’s more than just a government program; we’re trying to build these young men into servant leaders in their communities, and my pitch is, they’re going to come back and they’re going to strengthen those communities, and they’re going to help those who need help, and they’re going to really step up, whether it’s community, state, nation. We’ve had a lot of people come through the ranks of Boys State … that have really done a lot for their communities and the youth of America,” Benigno said.

Boys Nation

At Boys State / Nation, participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens. The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments.

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