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Shana Gilstrap and Ishan Lal help raise money for the YMCA's Youth in Government program

How much do your kids know about how the government works? Youth in Government (YIG) is a national organization of the YMCA that teaches middle and high school students about government, civic engagement and more. And two Upstate students are joining with their peers to make sure finances don’t keep other students from participating. 

The South Carolina hub for YIG is at the YMCA of Greenville. Shana Gilstrap and Ishan Lal are high school seniors who have participated in the program for several years. In addition to playing important roles in the organization, they have worked hard to raise money for scholarships that keep the program open to all. 

Both said they have learned a lot about how to be a vital part of their communities, about how the government works and how to speak up for what they believe in. 

Gilstrap, a senior at Easley High School, said she was intimidated when she started, but she can now speak publicly with ease. She has become a leader and enjoys debating with others about things she’s passionate about.

“You have a right to an opinion and I want my opinions out there,” she said. “I didn’t want to be uneducated about politics.”

Gilstrap plans to double major in law and psychology in college and possibly work in criminal law. 

Lal, a senior at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, also plans to pursue law and hopes to become a career politician. He said his family is very politically minded and he liked that YIG has broadened his horizons. 

“I hope to bridge the gap between the parties that continues to widen,” he said.

This year, Lal was elected YIG’s South Carolina governor for 2020 – 2021. He said it has given him the chance to become a proactive leader who listens. 

YIG is active in 45 states across the country and has been in South Carolina for 32 years. Each year, a model legislature is held at the state level and there are also national conferences. 

According to South Carolina Executive Director Mary Capers Bledsoe, the program focuses mostly on advocacy, community service and civic engagement. Students don’t have to be politically minded or want to be attorneys to participate. 

“Everyone is passionate about respecting each other and listening to each other,” she said. “It’s an optimistic place to hang out right now.”

YIG is open to any interested students. There is no special selection process. As a YMCA program, Bledsoe said a child will never be turned away from joining because they can’t afford it. And that’s where service from students like Gilstrap and Lal comes in. They phone banked to raise critical funds. 

“Last year, we raised $80,000 for (scholarships to) Youth in Government,” Bledsoe said. “These kids are the ones going the extra mile.”

Learn more about YIG and how to participate at