'51st state' gives Oregon youth a taste of real world

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Brett Barrick wasn’t sure one week was enough to shape a lifetime.

After his experience at American Legion Oregon Boys State this year, he’s convinced it is.

“They weren’t exaggerating when they coined the phrase, ‘the week that can shape a lifetime,’” Barrick said. “I am humbled by the people I have encountered, the things I’ve witnessed, the things I’ve been a part of in this week. In five days, I feel like I’ve already made a difference on the rest of my life. And I believe it is an experience everyone should get a chance at, but everyone has to earn.”

Barrick and about 90 of his peers participated in Oregon Boys State the week of June 12-18 at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. More accurately, the rising high school seniors from across the state formed the citizenry of the State of Christensen.

Six years ago, Oregon Boys State tweaked its program to create a more simulation-based program to immerse participants in a real world setting. The new state was named for Ryan Christensen, who served as the "first citizen" four years in a row.

“The American Legion Oregon Boys State is a continuation,” said program director Brian McKinley. “Every year is different, and every year is a continuation of the last. I look at it like this; in Oregon, in 1859 when we became a state, we had some laws and regulations. But the next year, the legislature met and it grew, and it grew … we’re in the State of Christensen about six years after our founding, and our body of laws, our tax code, our case law, all grows each year.”

William Chan, chair of the Oregon Boys State committee, said the simulation gives the “citizens” a sense of the real world.

“I was a citizen myself back in 1990. Back when I went through Boys State, there were more seminars, more lectures. … but at the same token, we still had our city and county party meetings, and we still wrote bills, but it was more like an activity. Where with Boys State today, where you actually have to do a civil service bar exam the first night you’re here, and then from there you’re actually going through a job fair and getting a job that you’re probably actually going to do for the rest of the week. There isn’t someone overseeing them as much; they’re really getting to become that senator, police officer, whatever job. It’s more on the citizens to make the Boys State experience what it will be.”

“With them running the program, and each citizen having a job, they feel more involved than just having to go sit in a lecture hall,” said Ian Gerstel of Post 57 in Newberg, Ore.

Not that there aren’t guest speakers and learning opportunities in the State of Christensen. Among those speaking to participants in both Oregon Boys State and Auxiliary Girls State was Republican gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce, who encouraged the students to remain involved after their experience at Boys and Girls State.

Oregon Boys State Director Stephan Price believes a major selling point of the Boys State experience is the opportunity for participants to get a taste of adulthood.

“They have jobs; everyone when they get here during the first day they either pick or are assigned a job depending on how the dice roll, so everyone has a responsibility,” Price said. “You have to get up every morning and go to work, and actually do work.”

“Obviously these are all leadership-quality kids, you see them come in and see them realize that there’s more than just one opportunity at Boys State,” McKinley said. “Leaders are everywhere in our nation, not just the governor. … That’s what they learn at Boys State, leadership is something that we all have in us and we can all exercise in our everyday lives as citizens of this great nation.”