Delmarva Christian High School senior Erin Cooney, a Trappe, Maryland resident, did not know much about Delaware politics until she was nominated to represent DCHS at the American Legion Auxiliary’s Delaware Girls State in June 2015.

Girls State, a week-long government education program for high school juniors, provides an opportunity for students to learn, first-hand, how state and local government works. Delegates from Delaware high schools are selected by American Legion Auxiliary Units, who work closely with local high school educators to evaluate potential leadership qualities in area high school students.

After selection, the delegates spend an “intensive week of study, working together as self-governing citizens at Auxiliary-sponsored Girls State program,” according to the American Legion Auxiliary’s Girls State website.

Delaware Girls State is held in Dover each summer.

“Before coming to Girls State, we were told to draft a bill, and I wasn’t sure what to write about,” said Cooney. “Then, one day in our Life Calling class, Yolanda [Schlabach] gave her testimony about changing Delaware laws regarding human trafficking, and I knew I wanted to work on that.”

Yolanda Schlabach, executive director at Zoë Ministries in Greenwood, Delaware, partnered with the Polaris Project, a national human-trafficking prevention organization, and Delaware lawmakers in what would eventually become Senate Bill #197, an act that heightens criminal penalties of those charged with human trafficking violations in Delaware, establishes new protections for victims, and promotes public awareness of the issue.

Cooney worked with Mariah Lee, a student at Sussex Tech, to write a bill that would further the impact of Senate Bill #197.

“As it is now, when an individual who has been charged for human trafficking violations goes to jail, their money is seized and given back to them when they’re released,” said Cooney. “The bill that we wrote would mean that money seized would go back into the victims’ rehabilitation.”

At Girls State, students form mock governments (at the city, county, and state level), elect officials, and create a Senate and House of Representatives. Delaware Girls State students present their bills to this mock Congress inside of Legislative Hall’s Senate and House Chambers.

Cooney was confident that the bill that they had drafted would pass without question; but, when Cooney and Lee presented their bill, they faced more opposition than Cooney had anticipated.

“A lot of the students didn’t understand the issue or its relevancy in Delaware, so we had to field a lot of tough questions,” said Cooney.

Ultimately, Cooney and Lee’s bill passed in the Senate but failed to pass in the House.

“I thought the biggest victory would be getting the bill passed,” said Cooney. “So, when it didn’t pass, I was really upset.”

Cooney was equally upset at the lack of awareness among these Delaware high school students.

“Some of these students will become political leaders in Delaware, and I wondered how they could get educated on this issue,” said Cooney.

Later that morning, Cooney came up with a plan. A last-minute speaker cancellation made for some unexpected free time in the day’s schedule, prompting Cooney to make an appeal to the Girls State staff.

“After realizing there was an opening in the afternoon, I talked to Yolanda and the Girls State leaders, and they agreed to let Yolanda speak to the students,” said Cooney.

At 3:00 that same afternoon, Schlabach came and explained to all of the Girls State delegates the impact of human trafficking in Delaware and what she and Zoë Ministries is doing to help combat this issue. The Girls State staff was so impressed with Schlabach’s presentation that they asked her to speak at Delaware Boys State—and at both Delaware Girls State and Boys State in 2016.

“I was excited that all of the students could learn more about human trafficking and take the information back to their schools,” said Cooney. “After Yolanda was done speaking, I saw a lot of students talking to her to see what they could do in their schools to help make a difference.”

In all, it was a humbling experience for Cooney, but a lesson she was eager to learn.

“Through my failure, schools have been impacted—a greater impact than what the bill could’ve done,” said Cooney. “I’ve realized that though my plans aren’t always that great—God can do more than I could ever imagine.”

Delmarva Christian High School senior, Erin Cooney, with Girls State Co-Director Beverly Buchanan, Girls State Director Helen Skelton, and Sussex Tech student, Mariah Lee, at the Girls State Banquet.

Delmarva Christian High School senior, Erin Cooney, with Girls State Co-Director Beverly Buchanan, Girls State Director Helen Skelton, and Sussex Tech student, Mariah Lee, at the Girls State Banquet.