Project 18 students at Hempfield Area High School are gearing up for a political forum that will host candidates for the upcoming township supervisor and school board elections — a forum students have been preparing for all school year.
The class, which teaches high school seniors about state and local government, started as a statewide initiative when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971. Project 18 students are required to complete 10 hours of community service and 10 hours of service related to a political event or candidate of their choice. Throughout the school year, students meet with local government officials and candidates, often having a chance to work on a campaign.
The benefit of Project 18 is mainly for the student who has no idea (about government) that would probably get involved generally, that meets a candidate, is inspired by them and volunteers their time to the campaign, said Ken Stough, who teaches the class. “So we get them excused here to work the polls and they do, leading up, door knocking, envelope stuffing all those kinds of things.”
The goal, Stough said, is to have students become passionate about politics and work to educate the public about local elections, like students Aaron Riggleman, forum director, and Austin Branthoover, president of Project 18 at the high school.
Branthoover, 18, has worked for political campaigns, including for state Rep. Bob Brooks, R-Murrysville, while Riggleman, 17, worked for state Rep. Justin Walsh, R-Rostraver. A turning point, however, was when both seniors worked for Rick Saccone, a Republican from Elizabeth who was defeated by Democrat Conor Lamb in the March 2018 special election to represent the 18th Congressional District, Riggleman said.
“That was kind of the gate into politics for us,” Riggleman said.
Now, the duo are working to motivate fellow students to become involved in politics and break the stigma that young people are not interested in local government.
“When you’re young, there’s a stigma that we aren’t interested in politics, and so when people, especially people at political events, do see younger people like Austin and myself, they’re actually really eager to talk to us and figure out why we’re involved and how they can get younger people involved to get them out voting,” Riggleman said.
More than 130 students who take the class are preparing for Thursday’s forum by meeting with candidates and writing questions that will be asked during the event.
The forum will start at 7 p.m. in the Hempfield Area High School auditorium. Each candidate will have three minutes to introduce themselves and a minute to answer questions. Attendees will have the opportunity for a meet-and-greet after the event.
“They’ve never campaigned before or ran for office,” Riggleman said. “They’re just normal people like us, and so they might not have the best resources to campaign in our community, but this allows them one night on an equal platform to provide views for the community and the voters.”
And for Riggleman and Branthoover, politics is likely in their futures.
Both plan to attend Grove City College. Riggleman will study political science and economics, with the hope of working on political campaigns. Branthoover, who will study economics and pre-law, hopes to hold office one day.
“The main goal of any Project 18 event is just to get as many people involved as possible,” Branthoover said.