Florida Y​outh Leadership Forum

The Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) is a unique leadership-training program for high school students with disabilities. ​Students participate in a multi-faceted series of online leadership training, role playing, mentoring, job preparation, career exploration and activities to build social and communication skills.

We’re joined this week by two previous participants of The Youth Leadership Forum, who now occupy leadership positions in the independent living network. Whitney Harris is the Executive Director for the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, Inc. (FAAST). Sarah Goldman is the Director of Administration and Youth Initiatives for Florida Independent Living Council, Inc. (FILC). In subsequent episodes, we dive more into Sarah and Whitney’s respective roles and hear how they continue to advocate for the independent life.

To learn more about The Youth Leadership Forum and how to apply, visit: https://www.floridacils.org/youth-leadership-forum

SPEAKERS: Whitney Harris, Sarah Goldman, Tony Delisle

Sarah Goldman  00:00

I just finished my first semester at the University of Central Florida and I’m living in the dorm. And so thanks to you, you know, you’ve changed my life. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that without your guidance.

Tony Delisle  00:10

We are about to embark on a thread here that we’re going to pull for the next few weeks. And this thread has to do with students with disabilities in high school transitioning into life after high school, young adulthood. This is a very important area, one of many that we’re going to really dive into. And this week, we’re opening it up because there’s a very exciting opportunity for high school students with disabilities to participate in a one week Youth Leadership Forum. Typically, it’s held in Tallahassee, in the age of COVID this will be virtual, but students in high school with disabilities can participate in a very good event that can be extremely transformative. And today’s guests are two participants of this event, who now occupied leadership positions in the Independent Living network. Both Sarah Goldman from the Florida Independent Living Council, and Whitney Harris, from FAST, the Florida assistive services and technologies, they are going to be both here talking about the Youth Leadership Forum, we have recorded an individual episode with each of them, which will be released on the subsequent weeks. So I really look forward to you getting to know them, as well as to hearing their story. They got a very powerful story behind what they are all about to this day, that is just been an incredible formative journey, and one that I’m very blessed to encounter. So I’m excited for you all, enjoy the episode. This is about being advocates, especially at an age that’s very transformative in the lives and the lifespan, the independence of people with disabilities. Well, well, well, I guess, here we are. And I’m so happy to have Whitney, and Sarah, we’ve done individual episodes with both of you which are phenomenal. And I’m really looking forward to given that the light of day. And this is, I think, a good teaser for those episodes, because this is going to come out before those because we have a really important thing to bring to the people. And hopefully many of the listeners will get involved and even maybe find someone that they know that would be a really good fit for what we’re going to talk to you today about which is the Youth Leadership Forum, Sarah, Whitney are veterans at this. And it’s just such a great opportunity for high school students with disabilities, for the mentors and the peers that come back to the program. For those that like you both who are leading this program, it’s just such a good opportunity for all of us to engage in unity and learning. And all of us are learning about leadership throughout this whole process from top to bottom, including you all so so please talk to us about what this event is, why it’s so important to you, and how people can get connected to it.

Sarah Goldman  03:06

I’ll jump in first. So the Youth Leadership Forum is now run by the Florida association of Centers for Independent Living. And what it does is it brings together on average, we usually have about 50 Youth every year, it’s been a little bit lower, because of COVID. We’ve had a virtual event last year, we’re gonna do a virtual event this year. But it just brings together from all over the state a variety of youth with varying disabilities, we bring them together for five days. And they talk all about self advocacy skills, the independent living movement, pre employment skills, but they also on top of that form of community. They have these small groups where they’re connected to one another. They’re talking about things that they don’t get to talk about outside of this forum, you know, things that bring them together like bullying, or some of the experiences that they’ve shared having a disability. And then on top of that, you know, we have some fun, we have a dance, we do a talent show. And so it really gives them large group, small group and social all in one.

Tony Delisle  04:06

Wow. I wonder too, now that it is virtual, if some people might have more access to it, or like in this iteration around learning from what you learned last summer, hopefully, you know, this is going to help to get the word out that this is a really good event to come together with to feel connection with others and to be in a safe space to have conversations people aren’t having among their typical group appears or others that they seem to circulate with outside of this forum. So I think that unity through disability is a huge key element of the Youth Leadership Forum. Whitney, what do you have to say about this event?

Whitney Harris  04:42

This event is so life changing and I know I mentioned it before when we spoke earlier, Tony but you get to be around people who understand the experience of disability, just the life experience of what disability means and when you’re a teenager you know, that can be That can be everything, finding that peer support. And so even even though we’re bringing everyone together, we’re talking about, you know, leadership skills and employment and resources. People are having fun and making connections. So Sarah and I are first Youth Leadership Forum was in 2007. And we’ve pretty much been best friends since 2007. And we could, we could list the other people that we’ve met that first Youth Leadership Forum that we still keep in touch with, it’s probably 5, 10, 15 plus of still our core network of friendship, which is really incredible. And that speaks to the testament of that connection. And that engagement that you get been around your peers for a well, it’s in person, just a five day event. So it’s pretty brief period, it really is incredible.

Tony Delisle  05:49

It seems fairly potent, though, just natural human growth and development. During that time, pure acceptance and approval of our peer groups is a huge evolutionary driver for all of us, to belong. And when we have found that it’s hard to come by that sense of belongingness for such a long time, and then to have something especially during these impressionable years, to give us that sense of belonging, there is something endearing and imprinting and life changing, and like you said, will stand the test of time and have lifelong friendships. I mean, what a better cell than that, right? Like you can have lifelong friendships through participating in this event. What a powerful dose of importance that is. Sarah, what are some of your thoughts on, you know, if people now have their interest piqued, and are interested in getting to know more about it? What can they do to find out about how they can get involved and become a participant in this event? Or if you’re looking for also not peers, but maybe peer mentors or, you know, chaperones, guidance? Anything else like that that could be of benefit to you? How can people learn more about how to get involved in registered?

Sarah Goldman  05:50

Yeah, so we have on the Florida Center for Independent Living website, we have a whole section on the Florida Youth Leadership Forum. So on there a lot of dates. It has an application for delegates, which are the students, those are actually due in a couple of weeks. So April 2, we might extend the deadline a little bit if we feel that we want to give people a little bit longer. 

Tony Delisle  07:21

I vote yes.

Sarah Goldman  07:22

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we’ll figure that out. We actually have already recruited our volunteer staff for the year. But if anybody’s listening and wants to be, you know, we need people to be speakers. For a lot of our topics that we’re doing, we have a career fair. And so we’re going to want to get especially people with disabilities to be mentors for students in different career avenues. So there’s other things that they want to be involved with, too. We’re looking for people, especially with disabilities to be involved.

Tony Delisle  07:55

Okay, well, I look forward to pushing more of that information out. That’s great. Whitney, what would you say like one of the highlights of the week long event is for you, I understand that you hear from legislators, they’ll come and talk to the participants and know about all the different parts about perhaps how government works to perhaps some of the challenges or successes that they’ve had along the way and perhaps sharing their philosophy and, and those kinds of things. And so I heard that’s out there. Like you said, there’s a lot of different activities that you do and places that you go. So much that goes into this event. Which part of this would you say really has stood out to you as being impactful for you and your participation, either as a as a participant or somebody now there’s been working to run the event.

Whitney Harris  08:41

So I would say it’s that career fair, kind of what Sarah just mentioned. So way back in 2007, I had met someone who worked at the Florida mag lab here in Tallahassee, they had connected me with a scientist because I was going to school for orthotics and prosthetics. And that was kind of sciency. So year after year, volunteering with the Youth Leadership Forum, I kept in touch with this person and I got to see her each summer, she came back to speak to more delegates and kind of like check in with her to see how my career was going and how how those steps are taken. And so what we’ve learned is being able to bring back these career mentors even if you’re not speaking to them throughout the year, you’ve got this resource that you can connect with to help you with your career. And you might be able to see them year after year as they come back to volunteer as you’re coming back to volunteer so that that connection with this professional the scientists was so cool to me, I felt like I was I knew what was going to happen because I had talked to someone who had kind of led her own way and though I don’t know if she identified with having a disability, but just just knowing someone else out there and in the field that was in the science field that I wanted to go into was really impactful for me.

Tony Delisle  09:58

That is great. So be exposed to actually real role models that can inspire us. Sarah, what is a piece of the week long event that really stands out to you that’s really been endearing?

Sarah Goldman  10:09

One thing, I think, when I was a delegates back in 2007, I was in high school, I didn’t actually think that I was going to be able to move out of my parents house, you know, needing personal care assistance, I didn’t think that I could go away to college, live in a dorm. And every year, we host a resource Round Robin. And so the students have an opportunity to go around to different agencies throughout Florida, different organizations like boek rehab, agency for persons with disabilities, Centers for Independent Living. And that was my first exposure to finding out that there were resources out there that could help me with these future goals. And I just remember somebody at one of the tables saying, you can move away, here’s our brochure, let’s get you connected, let’s get this going. And it was just a whole, like a light bulb went off in my head of this is possible, and these people are going to be able to help me do this. And like Whitney said, coming back a few years later, as a staff member, now being away at college, and that same lady being at the table, I got to tell her, you know, I just finished my first semester at the University of Central Florida, and I’m living in the dorm. And so thanks to you, you know, you’ve changed my life, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without your guidance. So that’s probably the most impactful part. Yeah.

Tony Delisle  11:23

Wow. So between the advocacy that people learn along the way, and about leadership, like I said, you know, with meeting legislators, what you said there, Whitney, about the career fair. So there’s enough exposure to wide variety of fields there of people, that likely participants are going to connect with somebody and see someone in the field and might see in them, that person in the field and be inspired to continue on and what you’re sharing there, Sarah, thanks huge to that, it’s another component of this, now, people are going to be exposed to all these different resources that are out there that people didn’t know about. And then the world of opportunity opens. So you’re hitting on three key areas of their advocacy, leadership, being exposed to entrepreneurial or private industry, or public or whatever it might be, entities and fields that can take you to the next level, and then understanding the resources out there that can just help live the independent life. I love it. I love it so much. So if you were gonna say one takeaway to wrap this up of why people should participate, or pointing to a specific time that you saw someone be touched? Or how would improve their life or, or even your own? What would you say to seal the deal on selling this event here Whitney? Yeah, that’s a big ask. Welcome to the independent life. That’s right. That’s how we play. We play big stakes. You know, we’re in the bigger.. the big part of this is the why.

Whitney Harris  12:46

So I would say if anyone in high school was considering it, I think, I think it’s a big plunge, because you’re going to learn so much that you didn’t even know that you didn’t know, right, you know, those resources, the career opportunities, the employment skills, you just don’t, you don’t know what’s all waiting for you at this first Youth Leadership Forum that you’re going to participate in. And it’s a wonderful surprise, but I would, you know, I would be like Nike and just go for it.

Tony Delisle  13:17

Ah, so I love what you’re saying there’s a there’s a new book out by Adam Grant, I encourage everybody to listen to or read, I listen to books. But it’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, and really calling that out. And that can be very powerful. And realizing like you said, there’s so much out there that we don’t know, and maybe there’s a fear barrier there for some people to participate. And that’s where the magic happens coming up against that fear barrier. Alright, Sarah, what about you? What, how do you seal the deal on getting people involved with this?

Sarah Goldman  13:49

I agree, I was gonna say, just take that step. You know, I was terrified. I had never been away from home before. And so I mean, I think a lot of youth with disabilities out there don’t know that they can go and have that independence. And so this really pushes you, I would encourage you to, like push outside of your comfort zone, be willing to take that step. I mean, what you’re going to walk into… unconditional acceptance, I have never been in an environment more where I mean, I used to fear being judged if somebody had to help me cut my food, or if I needed help taking a shower, and at the Youth Leadership Forum, almost everybody needs some type of assistance in a different way. And so you’re not judged for those things. And that alone was just a sigh of relief. So knowing that you’re going to take a step, but also have that unconditional acceptance. Find lifelong friends, and gain leadership skills. I mean, come on down. We want you.

Tony Delisle  14:42

Yeah, and I thought y’all were gonna mention the dance party as your biggest like..

Sarah Goldman  14:47

I have some pretty good photos of Whitney and I dressed like pirates back in 2008.

Tony Delisle  14:51

All right. All right. I think we I smell some black male there. So you know, I love that you I think you just named your next book or a book or you the book, you must write unconditional acceptance. unconditional acceptance. That should be the theme. It’s just Wow, that’s so powerful. There’s so much there to go into. I really appreciate you all coming on and plugging this, I highly encourage anyone listening to check out both of your episodes, they’re fantastic. We get to see the real deal sides of you talk about somebody’s wonderful virtues and values that you’ve learned along the way in where you yourselves have pushed up against that fear barrier and grown so I look forward to people listening to that one as well. So we’re gonna sign off here. Whitney, Sarah, thank you so much for coming on and putting this on blast. 

Sarah Goldman  15:42

Thanks, Tony.

Whitney Harris  15:43

Thank you. 

Tony Delisle  15:44

All right, so the next time you know where we’re going, onward and upward.

Amy Feutz  15:51

Thanks for listening to the independent life podcast brought to buy the Center for Independent Living of North Central Florida. If you like what you hear, please rate review and subscribe. And if you know anyone who might benefit from listening, share this podcast and invite them to subscribe to for questions, suggestions, or if you have a story you’d like to share, please email us at cilncf@gmail.com or call us at 352-378-7474. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, support, advocate and empower each other to live the independent life.