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ELKO — With the Cowboy Poetry Gathering upon us, the Western Folklife Center’s Youth Education Stakeholder Program has been in full swing these last few weeks.

A passionate group of local educators and volunteers have worked in conjunction with the Folklife Center and the school district for more than 30 years to bring these programs to fruition. Their focus is not on entertainment, but on bringing learning, the opportunity for self-expression, and the possibility of a new experience to all students.

Last week, Elko County students participated in workshops at the Western Folklife Center that included leather work, experiencing the gallery and learning about cowboy gear. Each visit ended with a drink of sarsaparilla at the cowboy bar.

As part of this youth festival, student art is currently displayed in the Western Folklife Center’s G Three Bar Theatre and the elevator lobby. According to youth coordinator Jan Petersen, every art teacher in the county is invited to submit artwork for the display.

“It’s a wonderful variety of the talent and the ingenuity of these kids here in the Elko County School District,“ said Petersen. “We are really fortunate here in Elko County because the kids are offered both music and art, K through 12.”

Other local coordinators, such as Deb Howard, have made a point to make sure that state standards, like those in the English language arts, can be met with their workshops. And they also like the kids to have something tangible to take with them like a wrangler scarf, a bookmark, or a piece of leatherwork. “Whatever we’re doing here, we try to make sure that it’s not just fluff. There’s something to it, and something they can take with them,” said Howard.

This week they head out into the schools and also bring students to the convention center to view performances or participate as performers. Oftentimes this is a first or only experience a student will have with a live performance.

“It’s important for kids to get that theater experience, you’re learning theater manners, sitting in the dark on a fuzzy seat. It’s different than sitting on the floor of a gym,” said Petersen.

This Thursday evening will be the kids open mic night, where they can perform an original poem or read an existing one, or they can sing or dance.

“We had one kid play Ghost Riders in the Sky on his cello one year; cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Petersen. “Then they get a pin and bottle of sarsaparilla, which designates them as an official cowboy poet. Deb (Howard) started it and I bet they’ve been doing it at least 30 years.”

Howard agreed that the open mic night has been a great opportunity for local youths to try their hand at performing in front of a live audience.

“When we do the kids program, on Thursday, sometimes that’s the only time some kids get that five minutes in the sun. We have spotlights on them and microphones, and a sound guy and music. We make it a big deal,” said Howard.

The Folklife Center, in conjunction with multiple donors over the years, has been able to set up several distinctly different scholarships for the purpose of bringing an emergent poet or musician to the gathering. This year seven scholarships were given, including two up-and-coming youth poets who will participate in the gathering, Colt Blankman of Utah and Sareena Murnane of Montana.

In addition to what’s going on at the convention center this week, the Folklife Center has two groups of artists going out to the schools and doing assemblies.There are high school workshops this week on poetry writing and how to present your poetry, and some kids will attend a few concerts at the convention center.

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New this year to the program is a group teaching square dancing at some of the schools and a cartoonist who will show students how to illustrate stories.

According to Brad McMullen, programs and gatherings manager at the Folklife Center, it’s part of their mission to preserve the culture of the West by engaging the younger generation.

“A major part, if you want to preserve culture, is that you want to make sure that it continues to exist. Educational programming is kind of at the core of what we do and it’s great to reach out to the schools and work with them and come up with programming that gets kids excited and helps support culture,” said McMullen.

The poetry writing and reciting workshop for the high schoolers is a favorite for McMullen.

“That’s a really cool experience and just encouraging them to be creative, and write, and find their voice,” said McMullen.

The mission of the youth programs over the years has been successful by bringing back some who performed or participated in their youth as adults. It has come full circle with Folklife Center volunteer and Great Basin College student Mercedes Hansen. She recently came across a picture of a cowboy and a horse she saved from participating in the youth programs when she was a kid. It prompted her to volunteer.

“I needed hours for my scholarship and I thought, why not, especially since you know, they give back so much to the community and they need all the help they can get, especially right now,” said Hansen.

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