By Barb Arland-Fye
A meal site for the hungry and a community garden for refugees and immigrants served as classrooms for six high school students during a weeklong camp on leadership and justice.
Students from three different high schools participated in the first St. Ambrose University Summer Institute on Leadership, Character and Justice in early June. While camp has concluded, the students’ learning experience will continue well into the coming academic year.
Each student has committed to developing a service project for the community. The teenagers will consult and share progress reports with their camp mentors from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, which sponsored the camp, and celebrate the success of the projects next spring.
“We’re trying to instill lessons about what it means to be a leader and what comprises good character. It’s also an introduction to nonprofit initiatives and what it takes to develop projects,” explained Matt Osborn as he supervised campers planting basil and other herbs in a community garden in Rock Island, Ill. Osborn is one of four St. Ambrose students who served as camp mentors.
As he guided campers at the Broadway Presbyterian Church community garden, other men tors assisted campers volunteering at Café on Vine in Davenport’s central city. Campers had the opportunity to volunteer at both sites on different days.
At Café on Vine the campers put a human face on poverty; through the garden project, they became cognizant of refugee populations and political issues in other countries and how that has an influence in their community, Osborn said.
“The students talked with some refugee families on the first day of camp. I couldn’t begin to re-create that experience in the classroom,” said Mara Adams, a St. Ambrose professor of theology. She developed the summer institute with colleague Jessica Gosnell, associate professor of philosophy.
Their participation in a retreat at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame inspired them to create the summer institute. It dovetails St. Ambrose’s commitment to justice and peace, the two women said. The university’s Rev. Joseph E. Kokjohn Endowment for Catholic Peace and Justice funded a large part of the weeklong institute.
Adams and Gosnell recruited the four St. Ambrose students to serve as mentors and empowered them to do the bulk of the planning for the camp as a way of enhancing their management skills. High school students from Central and Assumption high schools in Davenport and North Scott High School in Eldridge were selected for the camp based on their interest in developing leadership skills.
The overnight camp began each morning with classes at St. Ambrose University, followed by volunteer experiences at the meal site and community garden. Campers returned to campus to engage in various activities, including brainstorming for their projects. Discussion in the evening helped them to process what they learned that day. Students then spent the night in a campus dormitory.
“We wanted to build the camp around the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, temperance, justice and prudence, although we didn’t tell them that,” Adams said. “Our take on these virtues (using the St. Ambrose ‘to be’ theme) was to be wise, to be strong, to be brave, to be inspiring. We asked, for example, ‘What does it mean to be wise?’”
Campers tested those questions, re-enacting, for example, the Civil War debate over Kentucky as a slave-owning state that belonged to the Union. The exercise developed by Professor Larry Skillin taught students about the complexity of decision making.
“Students learned about character and the characteristics that will carry them through life, such as the strength to persevere, the courage to speak up, to inspire,” Gosnell said. “We wanted them to see how these characteristics are important every day, and not just on special occasions.”
The classes taught 16-year-old Roy Schindler of Davenport Central to look at things differently, he said. “The first day they taught us how to be strong, how to stand up,” he added.
Sixteen-year-old Jennah Davison of North Scott said she got a different perspective while volunteering at Café on Vine and seeing the diversity of people there. Before camp, she might have made a judgment about someone living in poverty. “Now I have a better understanding,” she said. Her project, in fact, will be to encourage fellow students at North Scott to serve at Café on Vine.
“I like how we volunteered for several projects. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and see what’s in the community,” said Arika Allen, 15, of Davenport Central.
“I love that this is a leadership-through-service opportunity,” said mentor Joe Cordogan, 21, a senior at St. Ambrose. “There are so many leadership things available for high school students these days, but there’s not a lot of training on how to be a leader when it comes to service projects.”
Jordon Williams, 22, also a senior and camp mentor, appreciated being able to show the teenagers how to identify areas of need and to apply what they’ve learned from field experiences in real-life situations.
Mentor Laurel Whitford, a 21-year-old senior at St. Ambrose observed: “We’re all learning. It’s not just the high school kids. It’s this whole process. We’re all together trying to figure out what a leader should be.”
Students’ ideas for service projects
Each of six high school students who participated in the St. Ambrose University Summer Institute on Leadership, Character and Justice has received a small stipend to develop service projects that benefit their communities.
Students also received a packet of information on how to pitch their ideas to school principals or others who may be involved in approving the projects.
Work on these projects will continue throughout the year, with input from summer institute mentors and organizers as needed.
The teenage participants shared a brief summary of their proposals with parents and others at a closing ceremony for the summer institute:
Roy Schindler, 16, Davenport Central High School: Roy proposes to have each homeroom class undertake a service project during the academic year which the students themselves would organize.
Mikayla Carber, 14, Assumption High School, Davenport: She hopes to reactivate a volunteer club at her school.
Jennah Davison, 16, North Scott High School, Eldridge: She plans to fundraise for Café on Vine and to get her schoolmates involved in volunteering at the meal site for the hungry in Davenport’s central city.
Arika Allen, 15, Davenport Central High School: Arika proposes to get more students from her school involved in Key Club through a volunteer-a-thon. Key Club, in turn, would have volunteers available to assist with other worthy service projects.
Gabrielle George, 14, Davenport Central: She hopes to get other students involved in volunteering at Café on Vine because the meal site needs more helpers, she said.
Anna Denger, 15, North Scott High School: Anna hopes to recruit band members at North Scott for musical performances at Salvation Army kettle sites in the winter. Band music would replace bell ringing.