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Students' Hopes Wilt in Washington

Education: Local teens, honored for environmentalism, were frustrated with legislators' lack of attention to the issue, but saw political process up close.

May 30, 1996|MIGUEL HELFT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CAMARILLO — For the young environmentalists, it promised to be the opportunity of a lifetime-a chance to lobby their congressional representatives for clean air and clean water.

But the 10 Camarillo High School students who traveled to Washington, D.C., this month to receive a prestigious environmental award came away with mixed emotions after meeting with a congressman and two senators.

On the one hand, the students were disappointed that their meetings with the powerful officials amounted to little more than photo opportunities.

On the other hand, they garnered insights into the inner workings of government that are rare among high school students.

"These people are so influential," said sophomore Chris Kunke. "It is interesting to see where they work and how they function. This is how our country is run, so we need to look at it more closely."

The Camarillo students' club received the President's Environmental Youth Award for developing environmental education lesson plans for elementary school students as well as implementing recycling and beach-cleanup programs. The winners were chosen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The presidential distinction is awarded yearly to 10 youth groups throughout the country.

The students, who went to Washington planning to talk about the environment, were disappointed that the issue was not higher on politicians" agendas.

"We went as advocates for the environment, but there was not much personal interaction, " said senior Shannon Murphy.

On May 15, the group had a brief meeting with Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) on the Capitol steps.

"We prepared a package about the Clean Water Act and the problems in the water that affect surfers in Ventura County," said senior Michelle Frier. "He talked about it for a little while."

But the congressman soon changed the subject to immigration, Michelle said.

In talks with aides to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the students learned about what politicians call a rider-legislation attached to a completely unrelated bill.

On a bill to provide funds for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, the aides told the students, a provision was included to ease restrictions on logging in the Pacific Northwest.

For many of the students, the rider concept was an eye-opener.

"Day to day, huge decisions are being made and you never hear about it," Shannon said.

"All you hear about is the budget, the minimum wage, the gas tax," Michelle said.

What they hoped would be a small-group meeting with California's other senator, Dianne Feinstein, turned out to be a breakfast briefing for about 100 people.

The students were disappointed when, instead of discussing issues, Feinstein asked them if they knew how many members there were in the U.S. Senate. When they finally had a chance to ask a question about a bill, the students were surprised the senator didn't know what they were talking about.

But later, when Feinstein was running for the Senate floor, they saw her being briefed by aides on several bills.

"You think all politicians are two-faced," Shannon said. "Personally, they are pretty nice. But they have so much on their hands, they are forced to act like they do to get things done within the system."

While the red carpet wasn't rolled out for the teenagers, who paid their own travel expenses with the help of grants from local businesses, they came away with more than just disappointment.

Boxer's aides encouraged the students to write letters-preferably by hand-to their representatives about issues of concern. They were also given tips on where to find information about upcoming bills that don't get a great deal of attention in the media.

"You have to take things into your own hands if you want to find out more about issues," said senior Kristi Askvik. "You can't trust what politicians say. Now I know they tell you what you want to hear."

All in all, the young environmentalists said they learned more on this trip than in any government class.

And they came back from the nation's capital determined to get involved in the political process.

"What's going on in Washington is important," said senior Matt Yarbrough, who plans to attend Cal State Chico in the fall. "You have to vote."

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