There's no better way to learn about government than building your own.
That is the premise of Boys State and Girls State, twin summer leadership programs hosted annually at the University of Central Missouri. Several high school juniors from the Fulton area participated this year — and two of them, Savannah Bethell and Ethan Bedrow, shared their experiences at Wednesday's Fulton Rotary Club meeting.
"It was a wonderful, life-changing experience and I can't thank you enough for sponsoring me," Bedrow told the club.
About 1,000 young men attended Bedrow's session, while Bethell joined around 900 young women. Participants were divvied up into counties and towns. Then, over the course of the week-long camp, they worked to create a government from the ground up.
"We started from the city level: Electing mayors and clerks," Bedrow said. "By the end of the week, we had a fully-functioning state government."
Politically ambitious participants ran for office, but that wasn't the only path to take. Students could choose between a number of schools: law, politics, media, public relations and law enforcement, among others. They then took courses from actual experts in the field.
Some students opened their own businesses. Zach Frazee, also of Fulton, won a "Most Original Business" award with his Sharpie tattoo parlor, "Boondock."
"I signed up for law enforcement, because that seemed most interesting to me," Bethell said. "Troopers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol taught our classes. They brought in a helicopter and we got to meet their K9 unit."
She also participated in a daily flag-raising ceremony and helped organize political rallies.
Bedrow, meanwhile, picked the law school, learning from actual practicing lawyers. He ended up serving as a court clerk.
"I had to take and pass a bar exam in the middle of the week," he said. "What I learned at Boys Town, first of all, is that law school is hard."
Bedrow said he enjoyed the nightly lectures by visiting dignitaries, including Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.
By the end of the week, a third-party candidate had won the gubernatorial election, and Bedrow and Bethell went home having made many new friends and learned many life lessons.
"We learned a lot about women in government and how important it is to keep growing that population," Bethell said. "Both in Missouri and at the national level, the percentage is so low. But we all have a voice to use."
Bedrow said, while the government simulation aspect was interesting, the social aspect was freeing. Living in a small town like Fulton, where many people already know him, can sometimes feel constraining, he said. Spending a week among strangers gave him a chance to redefine himself.
"What I really learned was that it's OK to be myself," Bedrow said. "At Boys Town, I was accepted graciously and openly by everyone else. I feel different now. I feel more comfortable in my own skin."
Bethell and Bedrow encourage other students to apply for the experience. They said they plan to return next year as camp counselors.