(Photo by Charlie Tucker)

Boys State leaders talk best practices

The American Legion’s recent 14th annual National Combined Americanism Conference gave Boys State directors and staff members an opportunity to network and share best practices to solve issues that negatively impact the program nationwide.

One issue discussed was how to reduce no-shows, meaning young men who are sponsored to attend Boys State but absent without notice. A few problem-solving ideas brought forth by attendees included calling each delegate, sending out a reminder email or letter, conducting orientation statewide and sending alternates.

"Our staff puts on a series of orientations throughout the state prior to Boys State," said Robbie Robinson, assistant director of West Virginia American Legion Boys State, "and we have found that a percentage of our no-shows during Boys State are those boys who registered for orientation, but did not attend.

"Our orientation goes a long way to pique the interest of the citizens to get them to camp and to put the moms and dads at ease, knowing that their child will be taken care of. At our orientations we have former graduates talk, give a rundown of the week’s events, show a summary video of West Virginia Boys State, let them know what to bring, and let the boys and parents ask questions."

Meanwhile, New Jersey American Legion Boys State, which has more than 970 delegates, reduces no-shows by encouraging its 21 representing counties to send their alternates. Each county has about one alternative for every two registered delegates.

"We tell them (alternates) that if you want to go to Boys State that badly, then come up to Rider University that morning with your gear and if we have a spot for you, you’ll get in," said David Bagatelle, director of New Jersey American Legion Boys State. "It works very well.

"It’s on a first-come, first-serve basis. We line the alternates up by their county, and we go county by county to fill any empty spots. For example, let’s say Camden County has two no-shows — we do contact the delegates to verify if they’re coming — and we have a couple of alternates from Camden County in line so we give them those spots. We don’t like to send people home without having an empty spot, so it is a fine line that we try to balance."

Another topic of discussion was fundraising to help support Boys State programs at the state level. A few programs currently have or are starting alumni associations, while all Legion posts throughout Kentucky have raised their dues by $1. The amount collected gets distributed among Kentucky’s Legion youth programs.

But South Carolina Palmetto American Legion Boys State came up with a different idea for raising funds. They hosted a 5K memorial run/walk that raised $7,000 for the program, which was used to sponsor 23 young men to the 2012 program.

The first annual run was in memory of U.S. Army Cpt. John "David" Hortman, a 1998 South Carolina Boys State and Boys Nation alum. Hortman, who had been on Palmetto Boys State staff since 2003, was killed Aug. 8, 2011, when his AH-6M Little Bird helicopter crashed during military training at Fort Benning, Ga. Click here to see how the 2012 Boys Nation senators honored Hortman while in Washington, D.C.

Palmetto Boys State staff organized and worked the event, which was sponsored by Friends of Boys State — a foundation comprised of Boys State alumni and other organizations. The staff, too, sold sponsorships to local businesses and featured their logo on the back of the race T-shirts. Visit http://davesrun.com to learn more about the race.

Additionally, a discussion on whether to allow non-U.S. citizens to attend Boys State was decided. It was unanimously agreed that if a non-U.S. citizen wants to learn about democracy, then they can be admitted and learn about our government and nation’s history. Many programs swear the young men in as American Legion Boys State citizens.

And there were many ideas given to add "fun" to any Boys State program. New Jersey Boys State gives each of its 16 cities a camera. The cities elect a photographer who is responsible not only for the camera, but for taking pictures throughout the week-long program. At the end of the week, New Jersey Boys State staff collect the cameras and uploads all of the photos onto a DVD that the delegates receive on the last day of the program.