A group of central Wisconsin teens working to raise community awareness of issues facing area high-schoolers say they're also looking forward to having an impact by voting for the first time.
Kayley McColley, Felysity Cha, Ethan Laska, Ava Bell and Lindsey Smith all took part in a recent Marathon County Health Department video project that featured young people talking openly about things like drugs and alcohol, racism, bullying, class distinctions, social media and mental health. When it comes to casting ballots, all five students say they want to support candidates and causes that will promote a more diverse, accepting society.
McColley, 18, recently graduated from Wausau West High School, and said she has had trouble fitting in as a biracial student. She said she'll be voting in November.
"This is our future and we're going to be the ones that can take control of that by voting," McColley said. She plans to vote for candidates who welcome diversity and support citizenship for immigrants.
"I just want to know what's going to be the answer for some of these immigrants, because I have some friends who are undocumented immigrants," McColley said. "I know that they deserve a future in this country."
She said she does not like the way President Donald Trump is handling the issue.
"Some of his behavior really is indicative of prejudice, and that's just kind of shocking to me, knowing in the U.S. just how far we've come, with trying to make it a welcoming place for other people," McColley said.
"This is our future and we're going to be the ones that can take control of that by voting," said Kayley McColley, 18.
Cha, 17, recently graduated from DC Everest High School and also plans to vote in November.
"It's only one vote but it has the potential to change the world," she said.
Cha, who comes from a large Hmong family, said she would vote for candidates who take a stand against racism and who show a willingness to compromise.
"I want them to be able to work with the other side, not staying on the path where we're stuck with racial divides and gender divides and the polarization of this country. I want them to be able to unite us," Cha said.
She said she was encouraged by recent local election results: "Growing up in Wausau, it's always been a very set-in-stone, traditional community, but now you see people of color and women and all of these diverse people getting involved and getting elected."
Laska, 17, is an incoming senior at DC Everest. He'll be too young to vote in November, but plans to vote in 2020.
"I believe it is definitely very important to vote in elections so that the world can know what your opinion is," Laska said.
As a gay student, he said he has encountered bullying, which he said happens not only in schools, but also in the behavior of adult political leaders.
"Now you see people of color and women and all of these diverse people getting involved and getting elected," said Felysity Cha, 17.
Laska also said he would vote for candidates who take a stand against gun violence.
"Every student I talk to knows there's an issue," Laska said. "We are willing to fight for as long as it takes to finally get it done because we don't want to be in our schools wondering when we are going to get shot."
Bell, 17, recently graduated from Wausau West. She said gun violence was her top issue after reading the biographies of the students who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
"I read through all of their memoirs, who those people were, and the scary thing was they're very similar to me and my friends," she said. "You put yourself in that situation and I think it's really hard to picture your peers being shot down."
Bell’s 18th birthday falls on November 6, midterm Election Day.
"I think voting is extremely important," Bell said. "If you're going to say you want change, you need to be a part of that change."
"Counseling is so expensive. If there would be outlets that people could go to who don't have the money, I think that it could help a lot," said Lindsey Smith, 16.
Smith, at 16, was the youngest of the group. She will be a junior at Wausau East High School.
Smith said she has struggled with mental health issues. When she gets to vote, she said it would be for candidates who provide more resources for mental health care.
"Counseling is so expensive. If there would be outlets that people could go to who don't have the money, I think that it could help a lot," Smith said. "If one candidate has a stronger argument on how to fix problems with our youth and with mental health ... then I would probably lean toward that."
Smith predicted that her generation would make a difference: "People are really using their own voice to speak up and say that they want a change and that they will vote for the people who best fit their idea of the change."