Wisconsin Youth Leadership Forum
Forum students spends a moment with Justice Gableman, at the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
When she was two years old, Esther Ziegler of Grafton was found abandoned at a Chinese train station and brought to an orphanage.
"It was horrible there," says Ziegler, whose ordeal was exacerbated by the fact that she has spina bifida. "Actually, horrible might be an understatement. The reason I was put up for adoption is China likes to give the impression that everything is perfect. So when there's a flaw they like to hide it and maybe sometimes eliminate it. So I was at risk for that. So I wasn't fed well, things like that."
Thankfully, a missionary group from Wisconsin found her and took her back to the Home of Eternal Love in Milwaukee, where she was adopted at the age of 5.
Spina bifida is a birth defect that caused by the incomplete development of the spinal cord. Ziegler, now 17, can walk short distances, but uses a Segway for anything more than a few dozen yards.
Her goal is to go to a four-year college and do something related to art or graphic design. But she's also honing her skills in another area -- as a leader.
Last week, Ziegler joined about two dozen other disabled teenagers taking part in a leadership forum in Madison. The program, Youth Leadership Forum, brings disabled teenagers from all over the state who have shown leadership skills to Madison for seven days, to teach them to advocate for themselves and be organizers in their communities.
The Governor's Committee for People with Disabilities sponsors the program. Students are chosen based on a variety of factors, from academics to personal experiences to essays.
"I like to describe it as academically rigorous," says John Olsen, a former instructor at Upper Iowa University, who helps organize the forum. "We don't test anybody, it's not rigorous in that sense, but I'd kind of like them to approach it like that."
It's was a jam-packed week. On one day, business leaders from Milwaukee and Chicago discussed career paths. On another day, representatives from Madison Area Technical College and UW-Whitewater gave tips on applying to college.
Last Wednesday, the students were taken to the Capitol for a session on passing bills and voting. Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Associate Justice Michael Gableman stopped in to discuss the state court system.
And Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton told the students how important it is to be a leader within one's community.
"[Leadership] begins with making a decision and bringing others along to do the same thing with you or to get out in front with you," Lawton said. "[And] it can be as simple as deciding in school to sit next to somebody who's sitting alone."
Some of the students were grateful for the chance to socialize with others with disabilities. Briana Bader, 19, who is deaf and graduated from Madison La Follette High School last month, hopes the leadership training comes in handy as she goes to a culinary arts program in Janesville.
"I've learned how to be able to socialize with other people even though I'm deaf," said Bader, through an interpreter. "I was nervous like everybody else would be but they've been willing to communicate with me."
And they've learned a lot from each other too -- Symon Wright, 16, of Grafton, saw how interpreters worked with Bader and got an interest in learning American Sign Language.
The Youth Leadership Forum is a nationwide program that started in California in 1990. Wisconsin was the third state to take part in it.
"Our whole goal is to develop leaders in a community of people with disabilities to carry on the cause for the rights of people with disabilities," says Joe Mielczarek, who started Wisconsin's program in 2000.
The goal is to branch out to other participating states in the coming years. Already the group's Facebook page is flooded with comments from students, parents and organizers talking about last week's events.
"It's an awesome experience," said Andrea Clark, 16, of Holmen, who has cerebral palsy. "And I think many, many people should try to get information and apply."
Ziegler, for her part, plans to take her lessons back to Grafton High School and advocate for more handicapped accessibility, like putting railings on the school's bleachers.