“What did you do at Boys State?”
This question will be asked (or has been asked electronically) hundreds of times to each graduate of American Legion Jersey Boys State. It’s a bit of a softball question—there’s a lot of things you could talk about that would all be true. Politics, speakers, seminars, sports, band, field trips, courts, newspaper, retreat…a lot happens at Boys State. We fill each week up to the brim. Everyone has their own favorites from the week, and they’ll have a lot of fun telling them to you.
It’s surprisingly easy to miss what actually goes on at ALJBS. We’re a selective program, only open to a thousand people a year, and we don’t advertise much. Most of the details about this program come from staff and American Legion members talking to others or former delegates telling their friends. That’s not a big radius. If you’re not brought into a close orbit with Boys State, you probably won’t hear about it.
When you do hear about ALJBS, it’s usually about what happens during the week and the famous people who passed through our program. This is fine; it’s a good introduction to what we do and why it matters. It’s still just an introduction. The full scope of ALJBS takes time to unfold.
I’ve been on staff for over ten years. Over those ten years, my relationship to ALJBS has significantly changed. I started out working directly with the statesmen, in a city, and have now transitioned out to supporting the program in other capacities. Like all non-city staff members, I miss the day-to-day interaction with statesmen, even though I’m currently in a good place to help out.
One of the best parts of being a city counselor is showing up the next year and finding your delegates who have returned onto staff the next year, following years, and hopefully for a long time. It’s a small, tangible validation that we made a difference in someone’s life. The last time we see most delegates is graduation. Out of a sixty-person city, one to three might return. There’s a lot of last goodbyes on Fridays. Then there is the year of waiting, wondering if anyone will return, analyzing whether the things you wanted to get through to the delegates actually got through. When someone returns the next year, it’s a very rewarding feeling.
But that euphoria is replaced by a deeper joy when someone continues to come back on staff. It’s not just a joy that they’re coming back. There’s the joy of moving from mentor to friend. There’s also the joy of seeing Boys State make a difference in someone’s life. Ultimately, it’s the joy of watching them mature and develop.
Can one week out of an entire lifetime make a difference? Of course. We don’t always get a chance to see it. ALJBS is an inflection point on the arc of a life. It is not the final point of the line, just a short segment at an important location. The rest of the arc is yet to be drawn.
ALJBS lays a foundation for our delegates. We emphasize important concepts like leadership, responsibility, humility, and citizenship but also provide room for them to rise up and grow. This is their week, not ours. We had our opportunity to participate in the system, and our time is over. These are their elections, their manuals, their sports. This is their opportunity to take command of your situation. We are here to give them that chance and also a safe space to do it. The transition to adulthood begins here and continues on after we are gone. Many times, we plant seeds in a garden we never get to see.
But we do see a lot of things. We see people who were challenged by Boys State to make a difference, then went home and did just that. We see people who started political parties in their towns as teenagers, who become the youngest in their town’s history to serve on the Board of Education, who run banks and start businesses, who are dedicated, loving husbands and fathers, who teach future generations, who build things that outlive us. We see delegates who come back thirty years later as a United States Senators to not only speak to people too young to vote for them but also to answer their questions, take photos with them, spend as long as physically possible with them, and admonish them to live by their principles.
With more time, the fruits of ALJBS become visible, and so does its core.
ALJBS is the beginning of the transition to adulthood. It is a place to make mistakes while learning responsibility without drastic consequences.
ALJBS is an opportunity to fail and learn how to deal with failure. Many delegates have not had this experience often. We give them a chance to learn about it while surrounded by people who want them to succeed.
ALJBS is a chance to work alongside people from all different socioeconomic levels, even if those people do not exist near you.
ALJBS provides male role models who demonstrate responsibility and leadership with their actions more than with their words.
ALJBS allows delegates to see what government can and should look like.
ALJBS embodies important concepts. We eliminate the barriers between old veteran and young student, between present and future leaders, between privilege and none.
ALJBS provides hope for the nation’s future and seeks to develop it.
To many of you, it will just be one week. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and grown from it. We hope our paths cross some time in the future so we can see how you’ve grown into who you are.
But it doesn’t have to end this way. We’d love it if you came back—not just to see another side of the program or serve but to build on the foundation laid this week. We’re always looking for people willing to shape the future.
Nelson Mandela once said, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” You’ll discover that as you return home. You can also discover it when you return to ALJBS. And you’ll also rediscover that shaping the future is done at the individual level, one person at a time.
If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you and you’ll blow us all away.