Three Rs lead the way; Students learn about leadership

Published 10:23 am Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bill Spitzer

P & I Coordinator Parenting Resource Center

How do you get 18 students from Ellis Middle School, Austin High School and Pacelli Schools to make the journey to Baxter, Minnesota, to learn more about leadership?

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First, you tell them it is an overnight stay in a 5-star resort with a waterpark, then you tell them it is during the school week and then you sneak in that you are going to enhance their leadership skills.

The event was called Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) and it is part of a 5-year grant that was awarded to the Austin community by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Alcohol & Drug Abuse Division. One of the grant’s components was the creation of several student groups; one at Ellis, Austin High School and Pacelli. These student groups will work on projects to improve and enhance student life through positive alternative activities. However, the work does not stop with the walls of the schools. These students will take these positive activities and messages into our community.

As the students boarded the motor coach, many still didn’t have a clue of what to expect at YLA and neither did the four student advisors that made the journey as well. The bus ride was a somber one with not many conversations. Most used their electronic devices as they listened to music or played games during the four-hour ride to Baxter. After making a quick stop in Milaca to pick up eight more students and a couple of sumo wrestler suits, we continued the ride to our north country resort.

Then came the challenge from the nearly 100 other people making the trek. Using an app called Picture Party, the students were able to share photos via text messages with the other YLA attendees. Photos started popping up of groups next to roadside landmarks. First, the great serpent in Crosby, then the giant deer in Deerwood. Austin was not going to be outdone by the others so we pulled the bus over in Garrison to capture a photo with the huge walleye on the edge of Lake Mille Lacs. One wasn’t enough so we kept our eyes open for the next roadside opportunity. There was one tucked away in the woods of Brainerd, Babe the Blue Ox. Too late, we passed it! Then the bus driver joined our quest and asked, should we turn the bus around? We did and we recorded our final landmark moment before arriving at YLA.

As we pulled into Baxter, the excitement continued to grow. We pulled up in our specially wrapped coach bus that drew the attention of many of the attendees, even the keynote speaker. The bus was wrapped with positive community norm messages that emphasized the goodness that can come out of any community. Positive community norm messaging is a prevention strategy based on social norms of a school or community. PCN messaging will focus on correcting various misperceptions about behaviors and attitudes of youth and adults regarding underage drinking.

Keynote speaker, Craig Hillier, set the tone for the next 24 hours for the nearly 150 students and advisors from across the state, with this statement, “You don’t have to be great to start something but you have to start something to be great!” Hillier used humor and real life examples of how to be a leader in your school and community. His message included the three “R”s: Responsibility, Resiliency and Respect. It was clear from the beginning this was not going to be your normal lecture about the importance of these qualities. Hillier started with a message that can resonate with all of us, “with every setback is a comeback.” Everyone has experienced at least one time in their lives when things did not go as planned and we had to make a decision. “Your decisions will determine your direction,” Hillier told the group. “If we do this where will it take me?” Decisions set our path for the future. Would we try again or just move on to something else?

Hillier continued to talk about the importance of the three “R”s in our lives. Resiliency is one important quality, because bouncing back is something we need to learn to do when things are not going well. Followed closely by responsibility. Own your life decisions and look at your mistakes as “great moments.” We can learn and grow from these great moments which are very different from “reckless moments.” Reckless moments are those times when we know we are doing the wrong thing and don’t seem to care about the consequences. Hillier used examples of using alcohol underage and bullying others as some reckless moments.

Lastly, Respect. Hillier told the audience, “We don’t need to be friends with everyone but we can be friendly with everyone.” The message of respect continued with reminding the students how important it is to do something simple, SMILE.

It was truly amazing to see how Hillier transformed a group that just met into “best friends.” Using games like “Simon Says” to drive home the message in a fun and energized way.

“I loved all the interaction we get to do,” commented Jacob Paul, a student at Pacelli.

“Progression, not perfection, you can still mess up and you’re still going somewhere,” said Cenneidigh Peters of Austin High School. Hewan Dagmawi from Ellis Middle School remarked, “The teachers were inspiring.”

During other sessions, students learned about how they could assess their community through the lens of a camera. The activity was called PhotoVoice. Students will be encouraged to look at areas in their town that care about young people as well as places that reflect concern. Students worked on a strategic plan that had them select from a list of community concerns and how they could highlight the hope.

The Youth Leadership Academy was not all work and no play. Students had a chance to mingle with newly-formed friendships, slide down the giant water slide or just relax in a lazy river. Not only was there fun in the waterpark, but students had a chance to try their skills in the arcade or some sumo wrestling. The entertainment continued into the late evening with a comedian/magician. The screams and laughter filled the air as the day’s events came to a close.

Students from all over the state and from across town came together for a common cause, to improve their schools and community. What a difference a day can make. The silent bus ride to Baxter was transformed into a platform for sing-a-longs and group games of “Heads Up.” They came as strangers and left as friends. Now the work begins, or maybe we should say the fun starts now!

Student groups are meeting at Ellis Middle School, Austin High School and Pacelli. These groups have five advisors guiding them through activities that they would like see develop at their schools; activities that will be inclusive to all students. Each group meets at least twice per month and will collaborate with each other for community events. The groups are currently recruiting members that share their vision of having fun without the use of substances.

APAC — Austin Positive Action Coalition — was created as a result of a 5-year P & I grant focused on reducing alcohol use by using Positive Community Norms messages. These messages are part of our “Truth is” media campaign that will promote these PCN messages throughout the Austin community.

In addition, our grant will give us the opportunity to enhance prevention curriculum in the schools and establish a student positive action group. This student group will allow young people to organize and implement chemical free activities as well as give them leadership opportunities. The grant is made possible by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, ADAD and hosted locally by the Parenting Resource Center (PRC).