Motivating children to make a difference
Leadership Institute starts students on community service
Instead of hanging out at the beach or going to the movies, 11-year-old Lianna Lieberman of Brookeville spent a week of her summer developing and participating in community service projects.
"I want to help people," she said. "It's just something I love to do."
Lieberman was one of 17 students who participated in the first Summer Leadership Institute run by Project Change, a nonprofit organization in Olney that provides safe and fun activities to engage youths in the community.
During the Leadership Institute, which took place at Sandy Spring Friends School July 20-24, the students participated in community service projects, made new friends and had an opportunity to plan their own service projects with the help of Project Change high school mentors and adult advisors.
Lieberman and her group developed a project to help the local Piscataway-Conoy Native American tribe gain formal recognition from the State of Maryland. The group was angry to learn that without recognition, tribe members cannot take advantage of state-run insurance programs for minorities and, as a result, many serious medical conditions have been left untreated.
"Animals can go extinct," Lieberman said. "Plants can go extinct. But people can't go extinct. It's not right."
Jason Cooper, 14, of Olney works as a counselor-in-training at Sandy Spring Friends Day Camp during the day and attended the Leadership Institute at night. He first joined Project Change as a student at Rosa Parks Middle School and decided to participate in the summer workshop because he enjoyed his previous experiences with the organization.
He said he welcomed the chance to combine "multiple imaginations" for service projects after a few challenging attempts to come up with ideas by himself. Cooper also said the Leadership Institute shows adults that teens are smart and capable enough to make their world a better place.
"A lot of people don't think we have the capacity [to help]," he said.
After coming up with a topic, students spent time researching with their group and creating posters to present the projects to their parents on the last day. In addition to the Piscataway-Conoy tribe, students developed locally-focused projects on bullying prevention, the environment and illiteracy.
Audrey Partington of Olney, an adult advisor for Project Change, said the Leadership Institute was an opportunity for the students to work in groups, learn the importance of giving back to the community and develop leadership skills in "a very emotionally safe environment for them to say what they think."
Partington said she was surprised at how seriously they approached the Leadership Institute and planning the projects.
"They've just been very attentive," she said. "Nobody looking like they want to blow it off … this is somewhat like school in the middle of the summer, but we made it fun and they really enjoyed it."
In addition to developing their own service projects during the week, the students listened to a presentation by Rockville-based Manna Food Center on hunger statistics in Montgomery County. Then participants helped make 60 Smart Sacks – backpacks full of food – for elementary school students on school lunch programs. Manna gives the backpacks to students to take home over the weekend so they do not go hungry. The Leadership Institute participants also made 142 cards that will be sent to American servicemen and women.
Lieberman's mom, Ann Joy Lieberman, said her daughter is naturally drawn to community service and said the institute was a great way to channel her abundant energy into something positive.
"She's been so enthusiastic, and she actually enjoys meeting people," she said. "She has that motivation. I mean, I'm proud to be her mother."
The Leadership Institute, which Project Change hopes to continue next year, was partially based on programs developed by the Tiger Woods Foundation. The Carl M. Freeman Foundation, Sandy Spring Bank and the Montgomery General Hospital Foundation all supported the institute.