Cooke’s Leaders of Tomorrow

SKILLs Students Join Youth Advocacy Forum

Four students from Cooke’s SKILLs program—Diamond Gurley, Issac Briones, Joshua Brown and Maryanna Castillo—were selected to take part in a leadership forum held over the weekend of November 17-20. The students, who completed an application that asked about their school and career goals, were among 30 young people chosen by Youth Power’s Amplify-NY Initiative.

The peer-run forum offers young people with disabilities the opportunity to speak up, build skills and prepare to take on leadership roles. The four students spent a weekend at the Edith Macy Conference Center in Briarcliff Manor, New York, and learned about a variety of topics including disability history, leadership and communication skills, assistive technology and self-determination. The forum also gave them an opportunity to connect socially with other young leaders in the making.

Before heading to the forum, Issac and Maryanna expressed their excitement about traveling to Westchester County, New York for this new experience. “I want to learn about other people’s disabilities and see if they are similar or different from mine,” said Issac. He also hopes to learn new skills that will help him reach his goal of finding a part-time job and getting an apartment. Maryanna, an aspiring movie makeup artist, said, “I want to learn different skills to be more independent. I want to talk to people there to see if they have the same disability, and how it affects them. I want to advocate for myself and be less shy.”

“Speak up and speak out for youth and young adults who can’t speak up for themselves!”
– Joshua Brown





Selecting our students for this opportunity was a wonderful acknowledgement of their blossoming leadership potential. While at SKILLs, they have already demonstrated their ability to help others, take on leadership roles and advocating for viewpoints that are meaningful to them. During a recent outing to Columbia University, a group of SKILLs students (including Issac and Maryanna) talked to aspiring Speech-Language Pathologists about what they hoped the soon-to-be-teachers would do in their classrooms. Maryanna’s advice to the future teachers: “make class more fun, play games and don’t just do things by the book. Put life skills in your teaching, and don’t talk negatively about your students.” A self-professed “shy” person, Maryanna said she is trying to speak up more and advocate for herself and others with disabilities. Sounds like she is well on her way to meeting that goal!

Issac has also shown growing leadership skills this past year, organizing a 3-week fundraising drive at SKILLs to raise money for the Hispanic Foundation following the devastation in Puerto Rico brought by Hurricane Maria.

The leadership forum is designed to bring young people together to work as a group to learn advocacy skills that they can take into the world to influence policies that affect them. One of Youth Power’s priority agendas is to address challenges that youth with developmental disabilities face so they are empowered to lead more independently. Issac certainly came away from the forum with new strategies on how to advocate for himself. “I learned that I should speak up and always be able to know that I can make a change in the world by helping out others.”