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Learning to Lead the HI-Y Way

by Fred D. Baldwin

"Ropes problems" stick in the memory of Justin Layman, a senior at Grafton High School, Grafton (Taylor County), West Virginia—things like getting an entire group of kids through a weblike contraption or across a wide-open space. The exercises, he explains, were designed to teach teamwork, not to test any one individual's physical fitness. "You really had to work together," he says, describing an exercise that required his team to walk on a wobbly cable. "My group made a human chain to get everyone to the other side."

Layman is describing a week at the Ohio–West Virginia HI-Y Leadership Center, better known as Camp Horseshoe. The camp, built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is located near the small town of St. George (Tucker County), West Virginia, at the northern end of the Monongahela National Forest. The HI-Y (short for "high school YMCA") program is one of several ways the Ohio–West Virginia YMCA (OH-WV YMCA) is helping students learn the ropes of citizenship.

"Our focus is entirely on youth, leadership, and community development," says David King, executive director of the OH-WV YMCA. When people think 'YMCA,' they think of a building sitting somewhere. You have to wipe that image out of your mind when you think about us. We focus on young people, their lives, and their communities.

"Even the term 'camp' is a little misleading," he continues. "The kids have fun here and do all the things you associate with camp, but the historical purpose and activity has been to help kids to turn their lives around and go home motivated to do something to make their communities a better place."

During the 1996–97 school year, more than 150 students from 12 West Virginia communities are participating in a special leadership and civic development initiative sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission. The week at Camp Horseshoe was just the beginning. The students each committed themselves to at least 25 hours of community service after their return home and to efforts to interest other students in HI-Y.

Layman and three other Grafton students (senior Trish Harryman and freshmen Gigi Collett and Lindsay Hunt) have kept their part of the bargain. Assisted by Mary Tucker, their HI-Y advisor and a teacher at the Taylor County Technical Center, they've formed the nucleus of a HI-Y program that currently includes about 30 students.

They've also taken on a variety of service projects: tutoring at a Grafton elementary school, activities with senior citizens, and fund-raising to help low-income students attend future HI-Y camps. One project involves cooperation with an adult volunteer group, Telephone Pioneers, who are Bell Atlantic employees. The students make Hug-a-Bears—soft, cuddly, stuffed bears that are carried in emergency vehicles for use in comforting children involved in traumatic situations.

Other HI-Y students around the state have taken on other projects. For example, under the guidance of Jeromy Rose, mayor of Richwood, students from Nicholas County are helping plan, and raise funds for, an outdoor sculpture garden and civic amphitheater. They'll also do deed searches at the county courthouse in connection with the creation of a Richwood historic district. With the mayor's help, they've arranged with an area coal company to relocate a foot bridge needed to connect a "Rails-to-Trails" pathway (a recreational trail created from an abandoned railroad bed) to a city park. They'll also do some light construction work.

Says Mayor Rose, "I definitely want them to get some dirt under their fingernails."

Practical Skills Count

"We don't really care what [projects] they do," says King. "In the process of doing anything and organizing themselves, they learn practical skills: How do you plan? How do you carry something out? How do you work with adults? And once you've done something, how did it work?"

In addition to local projects, the HI-Y program culminates annually in a statewide Youth in Government exercise, one whose complexity makes the ropes courses at Camp Horseshoe look simple. Meeting in the state capitol in Charleston, the students play preassigned roles: a governor, legislators, Supreme Court justices, and even lobbyists and journalists. They introduce and try to pass student-written legislation and debate legal and political issues.

For example, the four Grafton students will attend as legislators (two state senators and two members of the House of Delegates). They'll be introducing bills relating to the criminal justice system and community service. A fifth will serve as a page.

Kelley Jones, now a member of the OH-WV YMCA staff, has been both a camper and a counselor at Camp Horseshoe and, in 1991, was West Virginia's Youth Governor. She notes that Youth in Government (and a similar HI-Y program, Youth United Nations) focuses on realism; for example, students who play Supreme Court justices do so robed, hearing "cases" in the actual Court chambers.

"When we were kids," she says, "government was this big thing 'over there' somewhere. As someone who participated, I think I can say we do a good job of saying, 'Government is us.' It's people, not this exclusive group that has all the expertise. Government is a participatory thing, not something you're subject to."

That's an insight Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln would have applauded. But do high school students really need this kind of elaborate program—elections, lobbying for legislation, mock trials?

By way of answer, King describes what he often says to parents, business-people, and community leaders.

"Does your high school have a football team?" he asks.

Of course, he's told.

"And do you provide it with any special resources?"

Naturally. We provide practice fields, a stadium, lockers, uniforms, and equipment.

"And do you just tell the kids to go out and organize themselves?"

Certainly not. We have coaches who teach them plays and teamwork. The kids practice, practice, practice. After games, they study videos to learn how to play better the next time.

"And does your school also have a student council?"

The answer is usually "yes," and the audience realizes what's coming next—questions about student council support whose answers are likely to be, "We don't do any of those things."

The Practice of Democracy

"Democracy also needs practice," King tells them. "The big obstacle is that there is not an overriding, conscious understanding that schools and communities have to work in a way to promote civic responsibility."

The HI-Y program takes seriously that cliché of high school graduation speeches, "leaders of tomorrow." That's important, says Fred Cutlip, director of the community development division of the West Virginia Development Office.

"Good government comes from an enlightened constituency," says Cutlip, who serves as Governor Cecil Underwood's alternate to the Appalachian Regional Commission. "Training young people to participate sets the stage for better government in the future."

The HI-Y process seems to be working. Trish Harryman remarks that she doesn't like it when her fellow students speak disparagingly of their hometown; she tries to encourage "a more positive attitude." She hopes to return to Camp Horseshoe next summer as a counselor. Ultimately, she expects to study environmental science or go into social services. Either way, she "definitely" wants to remain in West Virginia.

She's acting in accordance with an ancient and honorable ideal, King notes. He reaches into his desk for one of its earliest expressions, dating from around the 5th century b.c.—the "Oath of the Athenian Youth." This, he says, sums up what HI-Y and phrases like "civic infrastructure" are all about:

"We will never bring disgrace to this, our city . . . we will revere and obey the city's laws and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence in those above us . . . we will strive unceasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty; thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.