Two hundred Kent area students, selected for their leadership potential, gathered for a day of lessons and activities as part of the Empowering Youth Leadership Conference at Calvin College.
The conference was produced by eight volunteer students from area schools that make up the Teen Leadership Team (TLT), with support from the Healthy, Safe, Drug-Free Schools and Communities Coalition of Kent County, a collaboration of area businesses, educators, and professionals, for a day of lessons and activities.
“Peer influence is the best method to prevent drug use,” said Bryan Taylor, a student member of the TLT from Cedar Springs High School. “Ideas start with this group and get introduced to our schools’ student council or National Honor Society.”
The goal of the conference is to encourage student leaders to identify risks in their community and take action at their schools to curb the use of drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors, said the organizers.
“It’s all about advocating to the community and improving life at school,” said Steve Dielman, a Kent ISD Health Education Specialist, who helps oversee the TLT along with Kent ISD Health Education Specialist Sydney Burrows and Rick Jackson, a teacher at Kelloggsville’s 54th Street Academy.
Dielman explained this was the second conference for this group. The hope is to continue the annual conference to get discussion going at the student level early in the school year and dedicate the remaining school year to training and recruiting members for the TLT.
“Addressing this at the high school level helps prepare students for college (and the associated freedoms) and improves the quality of life for the community,” said Dielman. “We see programs teaching facts and statistics. Students get tired of that. Our goal is to train student leaders to not be ‘preachy’ when helping their peers.”
“We’re hoping after the conference students go back to the community to be leaders in school and through their own programs,” added Burrows.
Building the Blocks
Prior to organizing the conference, the TLT travelled to Florida for National Youth Leadership Initiative (NYLI) training with the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), a national non-profit. Trainers worked with the students to give them skills to bring back to West Michigan, to disperse to students leaders in each school.
“This opportunity gave us a taste of what professionals would do. It made us better leaders so that we can help improve our school’s environment,” said Brian. Brian said it is often difficult to get information to at-risk students that need it, but after the training he was more comfortable helping them.
Brian said he enjoyed building relationships at the national level, and looks forward to inspiring students locally. “We hope they will remember the conference for the rest of their lives,” he said.
The members of the team said it was invigorating to learn from and work with like-minded individuals. “It was very effective to learn how to collaborate with people that have the same goals for society,” said Natalie Shabahang, a TLT student from Forest Hills Eastern High School. “It’s great to see people our age who take the stand to make the world a better place.”
Burrows said the process outlined by CADCA is adjustable for use in communities facing different problems. “First, identify the problem, ask ‘Why is it here?’, then form a strategy. You often need to drill down to a specific issue to be able to address a greater problem,” she said explaining that this is the process the TLT students teach their peers at the conference.
Making a Difference
“Young people are already awesome, they have what it takes to change a community. The first step is for students to believe in themselves, then others will believe in them as well,” said Colber Prosper, a National Youth Leader from CADCA who helped train the TLT in Florida. Prosper along with National Youth Leader Melanee Piskai, were asked to give a keynote presentation to the students at the conference recently held at Calvin College. “We encourage students to pick their strongest personal characteristic to influence change.”
CADCA works with over 5,000 coalitions across the nation, and has members doing service work in 29 countries. Their goal: empowering youth to help reduce drug and alcohol abuse, along with bullying and other negative behavior. “Our framework is backed by data,” said Piskai explaining that Penn., the state she grew up in, is at an all-time low for marijuana use and drinking since the implementation of NYLI training.
Austin Chestain and Sara Ross from Forest Hills Public Schools said they “…will definitely take what they’ve learned back to help students at school.” They said they were involved with Project Charlie (Chemical Abuse Resolution Lies in Education), a program where high school students train elementary students on the risks of drug and alcohol abuse.
“We tell the students they are good enough how they are and that they can do what they want if they put their mind to it,” said Austin.
Sara said that the conference built upon the support they give students they work with. “As long as you make it clear you aren’t there to judge them, people will open up and listen to what you have to say.”
Sara said she has seen evidence of student-to-student support with a friend of hers who started using drugs and cutting herself. “I told her ‘I will always be there for you’ and since then she got help and no longer hurts herself,” she said.
The TLT students were clearly proud of their work and were glad to be doing what they could to improve their community. “I think it is important for youth of today to teach other youth. Hearing things from a friend is different than from an adult,” said Natalie, while acknowledging that there is no quick-fix to social issues.
“Teaching peers is a step-by-step process. When communication is open, issues can be addressed appropriately,” Natalie said.