By Natalie Kouba
Doctors from across the country told Brandon Pugh that he would never speak. They told his parents that there was no chance he would ever leave home. They said he would have to live with his parents for the rest of his life or be institutionalized. When he was six years old, he had still not uttered his first words and had the comprehension level of a one-and-a-half year old.
Just seven years later, at age 14, Pugh was living by himself in his own apartment just outside Buenos Aires, buying groceries, riding his motor scooter, and volunteering to teach English in Argentina.
Pugh, a sophomore political science major, is an avid volunteer in his hometown of Moorsetown, N.J., as well as abroad. Most recently, he gained attention for becoming the youngest elected member of the Moorsetown Board of Education from a pool of eight candidates.
“It is really a foreign idea for people that are this young to run,” Pugh explained, winning his ticket at 19 years old. “There is a statistic in the United States, specifically for New Jersey though, that only two percent of elected officials are under 35. So it is a pretty small minority. Under 20 is almost non-existent.”
During the campaign in October, Pugh, along with his treasurer and chairman, knocked on over 6,000 doors, printed ads in newspapers, created a website and set up four to five talk shows. He never saw his age as a barrier. Instead, he believes it might have been a great help for him.
“I think a majority of the people saw it as being a positive, because they were like, ‘Well you are not too far removed from the schools, so you know what works, what doesn’t work and you know what our students need going forward,’” Pugh said.
Going door to door, there were some Moorsetown residents who thought he was joking, but most people in his town knew that Pugh was quite serious, just by knowing his character. The pool of candidates was larger than normal, Pugh said. At one point, three of the candidates pulled their campaign efforts together,
running on one ticket against him.
“Traditionally it’s really small, like four people for three slots, or three for three. But I think a lot of people saw my age and thought, ‘Well if he can do it, I can do it. I have a Ph.D., I have an M.D., a J.D., whatever it may be. I’ll throw my name in.”
Pugh’s victory was not a long shot. Although he was the youngest candidate, he was by no means under-qualified for the job. In addition to his four months of volunteering in Argentina, Pugh has been working with Gov. Chris Christie for a year and a half, where he began working in the Office of Volunteerism, handling relations with youth and the college population and visiting all the colleges in the state. The other aspect of Pugh’s involvement with the Office of Volunteerism is coordinating all non-governmental organizations, such as The Red Cross and Salvation Army.
“When we hit Hurricane Irene, there was a big gap. There was nobody that was going to coordinate for the disaster. So I kind of got pushed into that direction,” Pugh said.
Last week, he returned from a business trip in New Mexico at the explosives range by New Mexico Tech. Pugh serves as an instructor for Homeland Security and teaches their incident management courses and explosives response courses to local police officers and sheriff’s departments.
Pugh’s latest project is writing a bill which is now in the Senate and Assembly, hoping to be passed. The bill would establish a New Jersey Advisory Council on Youth and Collegiate Affairs.
“I have realized that there is not a lot of opportunities for people under 18, especially college students, to really have their voices heard,” Pugh said. “It will form a council where people from all over the state’s colleges and high schools will serve on it. So any law that’s affecting us, it will have to go through this group.”
His interest in governmental affairs began in high school, where he began attending board meetings as a freshman in high school. He was curious to know who his teachers’ and principal’s bosses were, where the money came from, and how the district was run outside of the classroom.
Even though his difficult childhood had led him to a handicapped program at an early age, he gained more independence in middle school, spent time volunteering abroad and locally with the police department, and was taking AP courses by his freshman year of high school.
“I think ultimately what got me elected was, people know me in town, knowing that I was the person that anytime anything needed to be done, I would be more than willing to help out. And I think people knowing me thought that I would be a good addition to the school board and I think that is ultimately why they elected me,” Pugh said.