For more than 60 years, the electric and telephone cooperatives of Illinois have given tomorrow’s leaders the opportunity to learn from today’s public officials. On March 20, more than 200 students from across rural Illinois represented 25 co-ops during Youth Day.

“Youth Day gives students across the state an up-close look at democracy in action as they meet their elected representatives in Springfield,” said Baylee Flowers, legal and government relations coordinator at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives. “State senators and representatives have the opportunity to inspire and encourage the leaders of tomorrow during this annual event.”

In the morning, state senators, representatives and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton met with students and talked to them about what they do and answered questions. In addition to meeting elected officials, the students also learned more about their electric or telephone cooperative’s role in their own communities and had the opportunity to tour the Illinois State Capitol, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

During lunch, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Natalie Phelps Finnie addressed the students. She discussed her background as a healthcare provider and how she got into politics. She encouraged them to follow their passions, live confidently and work hard.

“You’re embarking upon adulthood,” Phelps Finnie said to the students. “You can do anything you want to do. I just ask that you come to adulthood with the right posture and attitude. … Don’t come with a sense of entitlement that everything is owed to you. Work for it. Earn it.”

Participants also met Paris Van Dyke, the 2023-24 Illinois Youth Leadership Council representative, who was sponsored by Wabash Communications during last year’s Youth Day. She spoke about her experiences over the past year and challenged attendees to say, “Yes.”

“What I want to say to you today is something that I decided to do during this day last year … take every opportunity,” Van Dyke said. “You will learn so much if you just choose to say, ‘Yes.’”

At the end of the day, many of the students were interviewed by AIEC staff for the chance to participate in Youth Tour, an annual trip to Washington, D.C., sponsored by Illinois electric and telephone cooperatives. This year’s trip will be held June 14-21. These young leaders will represent Illinois’ co-ops on the weeklong trip and meet their elected officials, see historic sites, learn firsthand how cooperatives work and gain valuable leadership skills.