By: Sharon Hernandez, Puentes Youth Leader

Earlier during the month, on March 7-8, I along with dozens of youth from the Latin American Youth Center/Maryland Multicultural Youth Centers at Langley Park, Riverdale and Silver Spring, participated in the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Latino Advocacy Days in Washington, DC.

Over 30 youth leaders from LAYC/MMYC joined more than 350 Latino leaders and youth representing more than 100 organizations from across the country.

This two-day event provided youth with skill-building presentations, networking activities, and the opportunity to visit members of Congress on Capitol Hill to advocate on issues we care about. In the general program, policy briefings were also presented by experts like John Sandweg from the Department of Homeland Security. The conference provided useful information for those who will go speak to their state Senators and House Representatives.

Following the first day of workshops, youth from LAYC/MMYC’s Leaders Like Me program headed to Congress and the Senate to speak on important issues that affect us including immigration, education and mental health. We met with legislative aides from Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski’s office and Congressman Chris van Hollen.

Each of us shared our personal experiences with the issues or stories of our friends who are affected by issues like resource equity, lack of mental health services in our communities, and not being able to afford college.

As we discussed the topics and showed our passion for them, each representative showed more interest in the issues. Their response to us was that they are doing everything that they can to support these issues.

We were happy to hear the Senators and Congressman staff congratulate and thank us for being there.

This experience taught us that it is important to fight for what we believe in and that each story is powerful enough to help make a change.

Hearing this response will motivate us to keep moving forward. This brought us new hope.

As a result of our legislative visits, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Van Hollen’s offices committed to continue their support of the Dream Act. As we were leaving Congressman Chris van Hollen’s office, he returned from his meeting and we had the chance to meet him.

Douglas Chavarria, who had never done this before and advocated for the Dream Act, felt empowered to speak about how to improve his community. “It was great because I learned how to talk to a legislator. To other young people who may be afraid, you should do it [learn how to advocate], because you get to learn to communicate things that you care about,” said Douglas. “I felt empowered to speak about how to improve our community.”

To those who think politicians do nothing, you are wrong. They do the best they can for us to have equal rights and opportunities. We just have to do our part in letting them know our concerns, stories, and experiences.

What is next for us? Puentes Youth Leaders will be registering new voters at LAYC and community events through a partnership with the National Council of La Raza. We started on March 17, 2012 at LAYC’s Youth United for Healthy Communities Spring Conference and will continue in the next few months. Our next stop is the LAYC/MMMYC Annual Youth Job Fair, Saturday, March 24, at Montgomery Blair High School. If you have a community event where you would like Puentes Youth Leaders to register voters, send an e-mail to Cheryl Aguilar, Puentes Coordinator, to

Sharon is a Puentes Youth Leader at LAYC/MMYC at Langley Park. Puentes: Bridging Youth to Healthy Behaviors! is an initiative in northern Prince George’s County that strives to increase public understanding of and public support for mental health services to youth and their families, particularly for the Spanish-speaking immigrant community. Puentes is supported by the Consumer Health Foundation.

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