Focusing on the future

Laramie High School sophomore Carmen Leon is one of many volunteers helping to organize what is likely the largest minority-based STEM initiative in Wyoming.

One of 225 girls to attend the Wyoming Latina Youth Conference in 2016, Leon returned as a teen adviser to help plan, schedule and recruit attendees for the 2017 conference Friday and Saturday in Laramie.

“It’s really amazing and I think it’s really inspiring for Latina youth,” Leon said.

The conference focuses on science and aims to boost graduation rates among Latina youth, while decreasing that population’s teenage pregnancy rate, Executive Director Cecilia Aragon said. The goal is to provide Latina youth from across Wyoming with the skills they need to succeed academically and professionally.

“It was an initiative to target specifically young Latinas and educate them in a variety of areas — culture, ethnicity, leadership skills, suicide prevention,” Aragon said. “It’s important because it creates a network and cultural connection among young Latinas throughout the state of Wyoming.”

Originally sponsored by HOPE — Hispanic Organization for Progress and Education — the first conference was held in 2000.

HOPE co-founder Ann Esquibel Redman said she was inspired to hold the first conference after a transformative experience before a U.S. Department of Health conference in Sacramento, California.

Redman and a committee of other women were tasked with finding statistics and writing a paper on health issues affecting Latina women — such as domestic violence and substance abuse.

“It was just eye-opening to hear the stories that these women had to share with us, not that we on the committee had not also experienced challenges and barriers as we grew up — and many still do,” Redman said. “But we came back and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could start something to change those statistics?’”

So, Redman and the committee started planning what would become the Wyoming Latina Youth Conference.

The conference grew throughout the years and moved under the umbrella of a Cheyenne nonprofit, the Greater Cheyenne Foundation. It is also supported by Laramie County Community College.

The conference is open to girls in grades 5-12 and seeks to engage with students as they start to make important life decisions, Redman said.

“We just wanted to target young females, with the idea that they would take the messages that they learned at the conference to the men in their life, whether that was their fathers, their uncles, their boyfriends,” Redman said. “(We) focus on self-awareness, education and encourage them to have the power of choice, to go to school, to say no to drugs.”

Aragon and Redman said they have seen girls who participate in the program go on to be teen advisers, committee members and successful members of the community.

“We’ve had phenomenal participation and we’ve had phenomenal feedback on how this helps girls to stay in school, how it gets them interested in STEM fields,” Aragon said.

The conference also aims to inspire confidence in its attendees, Redman said.

“I grew up with very little self-confidence,” she said. “I was told I couldn’t accomplish things and somewhere along the way, I found my voice and have been able to share those stories.”

The 2017 keynote speaker will be Linda Alvarado, president and CEO of Alvarado Construction, Inc., who is also a part owner of the Colorado Rockies.

The conference starts with a banquet open to the public 6 p.m. Friday at the UW Conference Center in the Hilton Garden Inn, 2229 Grand Ave.

“It costs $45, but that money goes toward helping a young Latina with scholarships,” Aragon said.

On Saturday, the girls will attend a series of workshops on everything from robotics to art to leadership and learn about culture, health and responsible decision-making.

Attendees can register for the conference at www.wyominglatinayouthconference.com.

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