Inspire Colorado’s work with high school students inspires donors

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams speaks at a fundraiser Monday for Inspire Colorado, a nonpartisan group that encourages high students to register to vote and get involved. To his left, in blue, is Donalyn White with Inspire Colorado and to her right, in a white shirt, is Bob Meinzer, a board member with the national Inspire group. (SOS photo)

Twitter is filled with suggestions about motivating young people to vote this year, but the Centennial State is way ahead of that idea, thanks to Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Inspire Colorado.

Over the last three years, Inspire Colorado has worked with schools across the state in a student-led movement to register classmates to vote or get those already registered to pledge to vote. So far Inspire Colorado has signed up more than 7,000 students.

Williams — who got his start in politics in high school — believes it is so important for young people to be involved he established the Eliza Pickrell Routt Award, which the offices hands out to high schools where more than 85 percent of the senior class has registered to vote.

Roxane White, former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose daughter Donalyn White organized the fundraiser for Inspire Colorado. (SOS photo)

“We would not be where we are today in the state of Colorado without the wonderful support of the Secretary of State’s office and Secretary Williams,” said Ryan Drysdale, regional manager for Inspire Colorado.

Drysdale, Williams and Roxane White, the former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper, were among the speakers at a fundraiser Monday night in Denver to benefit Inspire Colorado, a nonpartisan organization that works with students, teachers and school administrators to talk to classes about the importance of civic engagement.

“I have to say that Inspire Colorado has become my top charity,” White said. “I’m concerned about the growing inequality in America and the growing anger in America and the feeling that we can’t make a difference.”

White’s mother, Barbara Stephani, was at the fundraiser, as was White’s daughter, Donalyn White, a regional manager for Inspire Colorado who helped organized the fundraiser.  Roxane White urged those at the event to “open their checkbooks” and give generously. She contributed $1,500, which was matched by the Rose Community Foundation.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams with the president and chairman of Inspire U.S., Eileen Haag and Ira Lechner, at a fundraiser for Inspire Colorado. (SOS photo)

Williams was greeted with cheers when he said Colorado has the  highest voter registration percentage in America and in the last three presidential elections has been in the top five states in terms of turnout.

Inspire Colorado is the state chapter of Inspire U.S., the brainchild of Ira Lechner and his wife Eileen Haag, whose backgrounds are fascinating.  She serves as president of Inspire U.S. and Lechner is chairman of the board. They were present at the fundraiser, as was board member Bob Meinzer, who grew up on a farm near Limon and later worked for US West. Meizner, who now lives in San Diego,  pledged $10,000 to Inspire Colorado.

Meizner said he and others were recently talking about the young students in Florida who have been so vocal after the massacre at their high school.

“Eileen looked at me and said, ‘You know, Bob, people seemed to be surprised but we have seen this again and again and again over these past four years in the states where we’ve been involved,” Meizner said.

Peak to Peak High School student Robin Petersen and her teacher Josh Benson at Inspire Colorado’s first fundraiser. (SOS photo)
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Robin Petersen, a student at Peak to Peak High School, share a lighthearted moment . (SOS photo)

Other speakers included Robin Petersen, a student at Peak to Peak High School in Lafayette, which last year received the Eliza Pickrell Rout Award. Petersen said she struggled with the idea of how to make a difference and then discovered Inspire Colorado before her junior year at the charter school.

“I knew this was exactly what I needed. I started working with teachers and we got involved going to classrooms, giving little speeches about why it’s really important to register to vote and get out and vote,” she said.

The crowd cheered and whooped when the high school senior said over the past two years she has registered about 350 classmates to vote.

Students, election officials and other dignitaries attended the Inspire Colorado fundraiser. From left to right, Jeremy Gart, Denver elections director Amber McReynolds, Sydney Gart nd Roxane White, former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper. The Garts attend Kent High School. (McReynolds photo)

Colorado lawmakers in 2013 passed a bill that allows young people who turn 16 but will not be 18 by the date of the next election to preregister to vote.

Amber McReynolds, Denver’s election manager, said her office encourages students as young as 15 to work as election judges.

Drysdale said that so far 15 Colorado schools have received the Eliza Pickrell Routt Award, which award is named after the wife of Colorado’s first governor, John Routt. She dedicated herself to urging equal rights for women and in honor of that commitment was allow to be the first woman in Colorado to register to vote. Four of the schools are repeat Eliza Pickrell Routt Award winners, meaning another senior class hit the 85 percent mark.

Colorado students who registered to vote or pledged to vote were twice as likely to vote in the 2016 primary as other 18-year-olds in the state, Drysdale said.  And 91 percent of those students who voted in the primary voted in the general election, Drysdale said.

Attendees at a fundraiser Monday. At far right is Barbara Stephani, grandmother of fundraiser organizer Donalyn White. (SOS photo)

Yuma High School was the first recipient of the Eliza Pickrell Routt Award. Williams and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who graduated from Yuma High in 1993, presented the award to Navil Babonoyaba and Andrea Hermosillo, who got 96 percent of the graduating class of 2016 to register to vote.

“It’s easy to participate but a lot of folks don’t do that. Instead they complain. They whine,” Williams said during the YHS ceremony. “But you have a couple of students here who took some leadership and they did something different. They got their peers registered to vote.”