Though they’re eighth-graders, Marissa Brannick and Megan Herrick display an adult-like interest in political issues of the day.
"My dad is really into politics. I tend to watch the news every night with him," Marissa noted.
"I enjoy learning the history about everything that goes on. I really like getting involved and speaking out," Megan said.
These are good traits to have when coming face-to-face with politicians, which is exactly what the two 14-year-olds did on March 9.
Marissa and Megan, students at Elmira’s Holy Family Middle School, accompanied their principal, Elizabeth Berliner, to Albany for Public Policy Day. The annual event, hosted by the New York State Catholic Conference, gives participants the chance to meet with their legislators and discuss a variety of issues important to Catholics.
Holy Family’s contingent was among groups that met separately with politicians representing their Southern Tier region: Assemblyman Tom O’Mara and Phil Palmesano, an aide to Sen. George Winner. A chief priority for Berliner and her two students was promoting Catholic schools, since one of the state bishops’ six public-policy priorities this year is beseeching state government to remit promised reimbursements to Catholic schools and offer educational tax credits to families. According to the state Catholic conference, New York’s Catholic schools are currently entitled to an additional $243 million from the state.
Berliner observed that the discussions were invigorating, thanks to the fact that Marissa and Megan had researched this issue ahead of time and also that O’Mara and Palmesano both have personal ties to Catholic education: O’Mara sends his children to Catholic schools, and Palmesano is a graduate of St. Ann School in Hornell.
Berliner said she was impressed by the large amount of time that the two men gave them.
"I don’t think the girls believed politicians would sit down and listen to their concerns like that," she remarked.
Marissa added that "it felt very personal that they would meet with us one on one."
Marissa noted that their day included several other highlights, such as attending a workshop about the issues of Catholic social teaching, observing the state Senate in session and taking part in a noontime Mass.
"To see a Mass in a convention center concelebrated by the all the bishops of New York — it was just an inspiring experience, really," Berliner said. The principal added that another source of inspiration for her students was seeing how the Southern Tier contingent attending Public Policy Day was mostly volunteers, meaning they committed their entire day to advocating on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Berliner said she’s brought students to Public Policy Day several times in recent years and has always considered it a worthwhile experience. Megan, for one, feels the same about her visit to the state capital.
"We were really glad we got to go. I really liked it; instead of watching (the political process) on TV I was able to go there. I really learned a lot more in-depth than I thought I would," she said.
Megan and Marissa agreed that as many people as possible, regardless of age, should lend their voice to political concerns.
"If only one person spoke out, (legislators) wouldn’t know what’s really happening," Megan said.
"I think it’s important to get involved. You need to know what’s going on, or you’re going to be out of touch with everything," Marissa added. "You need to know the problems around you and how they might affect you."