How do you take a bunch of teenagers and teach them to be leaders? The Rotary Middle School Leadership Program seems to have figured it out. Rotary clubs from around Northern Nevada asked teachers and principals from 18 different schools to hand-pick five teens from their 8th grade classes and hand them over to professional leadership trainers for two weekends. During that time they practiced team-building, decision-making, and even had some fun.
Joe Donohue, the co-director of the Rotary Camp Youth Leadership Awards program, says it's a great way to reach teens. "The kids on day-one are like any other group of teens who don't know each other. They don't make eye contact with each other or with us. The last day they're the best of friends," said Donohue. They also learn that when they take care of others, it comes back to them.
Donohue says Rotary sponsors the program because they believe it's the best thing for kids– who one day will help run our community. "Middle school is a very difficult time, so we give them some skills so they can make choices, so that they wind up being community leaders," he said.
Eighth graders from Reno, Sparks, Fernley, Fallon and Yerington were hand-picked by their teachers to participate in the program. They interacted with with facilitators and each other to explore their leadership potential and then put it into practice.
Donohue says the goal is to encourage positive thinking. "There is a basic change in thinking that takes place with the kids, that has to do with how they view tasks."
"Kids will say 'I have to go to school today, I have to do this, I have to do that.'" The facilitators don't let them say that during the program. They have them say "I get to."
For example, they'll ask the teens to say "I get to go to school tomorrow, I get to go to this meeting, I get to do my homework." "We want them to see that there is another way of operating," said Donohue.
"It makes the kids enthusiastic about who they are and what they're doing, and the world," Donohue added.
What did the teens think of the program? On the last day, each participant had to get up in front of parents, teachers and their peers and talk briefly about what they learned. They used words like courage, risk, leadership, as they thanked their facilitators. They also bonded with the volunteer counselors who come from local high schools and gave up two weekends to work with the middle school students.
The goal next year is to involve more teens from the rural areas, so they can experience the program, and learn to lead.
As one eighth grader put it, "I learned how to open up to people that I had no idea who they are and I learned how to push myself, and get out of my comfort zone." That sounds like the first steps in becoming a leader. Kudos to our area Rotary Clubs for caring, and for putting their resources toward our future leaders.