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La Follette High School sophomore part of national youth group documenting COVID-19 experience

By Scott Girard | The Cap Times

A La Follette High School sophomore is one of 22 high school students around the United States documenting her COVID-19 experience and trying to connect youth in the community with resources they need.

Lilyana Sims began working with the Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit organization focused on uplifting youth voice, about three-and-a-half years ago. Organizers contacted her about being part of the new National Youth Response Movement team in March, and after looking at who else had been invited, she knew she was going to take part.

“I was very in awe of the other people they had chosen because it’s a bunch of really powerful, intelligent students around the United States,” she said. “I was like, ‘Woh, this is where I want to be.’”

Over the last four weeks, Lilyana said, the group has developed three priority issues for its work: access to education, access to mental health and health care, and helping to create a sense of community in their neighborhoods while following public health guidelines. For now, they’re using hashtags like #GetupSpeakUp and #MikvaQuaranteenChallenge to connect with other teens beyond the group’s members.

A press release from the Mikva Foundation announcing the group’s creation states the council will “elevate youth voice and inform policy decisions during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“Council members are sharing their personal stories on the myriad of issues that they and their peers are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak — ranging from the loss of their family’s income, to health care challenges, to making the transition to distance learning,” the release states. “The stories will help inform the decision-making processes and public policy that will impact the lives of youth during and beyond the outbreak.”

Cristina Perez, who is one of three advisers for the group and the Mikva Challenge NYC program director, said it’s been great to see the students interacting with each other and on social media so far, and she hopes soon they’ll be able to expand to talking with decision-makers.

“They’ve been pretty forthright with us, some of them are experiencing some hard times, whether stress from their parents not currently having jobs and just being distracted and not able to focus on their work to grieving for the experiences they were planning on having,” Perez said. “(They have) an immense amount of motivation to engage deeply with what’s happening and wanting to be part of the conversation and wanting to make sure other young people have the support and resources that they need to survive this time.”

It’s also allowed Lilyana to gain perspective on how Madison is responding to the pandemic compared to other places around the country.

“It’s vastly different but also the same. It’s really weird,” she said. “Nationally we have the same leadership, so we hear the same things on the TV in the press conferences and we get the same things through the media. But the actual experience of what’s happening in our cities, respectively, is not the same.”

Group members include a couple of students in Georgia, where many restrictions were recently loosened by the governor, and some on the west coast, in Oregon, California and Washington.

“Different people having different experiences, and being able to share them, makes us all more educated and makes us all more culturally competent,” Lilyana said.

Perez said that geographic diversity was something they specifically sought out in creating the group, having students apply through a “pretty simple form” from various areas of the country where the Mikva Challenge is headquartered or partners with districts like Madison.

“We selected students based on some of the things that they shared in their application,” Perez said. “We wanted it to be geographically diverse and diverse in their experiences.”

Lilyana called the group members “very resilient,” and said it’s “so uplifting and inspiring” to be among “some of the most creative people ever.”

“We have been the most resilient age group in terms of wanting change and wanting to create movements and wanting rapid movement and wanting to see the world in a better place,” she said. “I’m really proud that I get to be part of it.”

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