ITI 2011: There and Back Again
[Note: This was originally posted on the blog that my wife and I share.]
As much as I would enjoy writing a post about The Hobbit, this is actually my annual post on my experiences at the Illinois Teen Institute just a couple of weeks ago. While some who read this blog are surely familiar with it, I am going to assume that there are at least a few visitors who may not know. So before I get into ITI 2011, let me give a brief recap:
The Illinois Teen Institute is a week-long leadership camp during the summer, sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (it has taken me many years, but I think I’ve finally gotten the name down pat). ITI was started in 1974 and has been going strong ever since, making it the longest-running Teen Institute in the nation.
As a Teen Institute, it is aimed at, well, teens. Students are able to attend as participants from the summer before their freshmen year of high school until the summer after they graduate. As a participant, teens are placed into two groups: First is a small discussion group of 8-12 teens and two staff members (depending on attendance numbers). The members of the discussion groups generally do not know one another before hand, and the purpose of the groups is to discuss the general sessions and workshops offered each day. The second group is a Community Action Team, and it is the heart and soul of the Illinois Teen Institute. Teens from the same area/school/community/etc work together to come up with a plan to improve their community, utilising the skills and information they have gained at the Institute. The CAT plan is conceived, planned, and carried out by teens, with adult sponsors or volunteer staff members present as resources. (As an aside, Operation Snowball, Inc. was the result of a community action plan from 1978, or thereabouts, that has become an international drug prevention program.)
As a leadership camp, ITI focuses on helping teens become better leaders in the schools, their communities, and in the state. It is also a “prevention first” program, meaning that students learn about ways to prevent risky behaviours, most notably alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, etc. It is not a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery program. The entire week is focused on the teens. The speakers and workshops are selected to provide meaningful information and useful skills.
I first attended ITI in 1999 as a participant. In 2000 and 2001 I was back again as a member of the Administrative Team (A-Team), which allowed me to attend free of charge as a teen staff member. As a member of the A-Team I did not have a discussion group, although I did participate with my Community Action Team. From 2002-2004 I was absent due to serving a mission in California, but I returned in 2005 as a member of the volunteer staff, working as a co-facilitator. This placed me with a discussion group and a CAT. I did this for two years before being selected as a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2007.
The PALS 1 program is designed for Peers with Advanced Leadership Skills who are coming back a second or third year to really focus on specific leadership skills. The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the main focus has always been to help those teens who are in positions of leadership be more effective leaders and to train to be leaders at ITI. (The PALS 2 program has been renamed Youth Staff and is just that: teens who have been through the program and are ready to practice what they’ve learned. They work with a volunteer staff member in leading discussion groups, working with action teams, and making sure the participants feel welcome and have a great week.)
I applied to be a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2008 but, due to a mix-up in contact information, I didn’t learn that I had been selected until the Friday evening after staff training had started. Gretch and I had just gotten married about 3-4 weeks earlier and I was scheduled to work that entire week. Whoops. I was disappointed, but it was probably for the best, since we were still trying to get settled and all.
After bringing Gretch to my high school’s Operation Snowball weekend in 2008 and 2009, I encouraged her to come to ITI, despite her complete lack of experience with the program. She applied as a volunteer staff member and was accepted as a co-facilitator. I returned as a PALS 1 Advisor (new name, same job) and we had a wonderful week together. We came back in 2010, volunteering for the same roles. During the 2010 camp, Gretch and I helped the girls in Headquarters (formerly known as the A-Team) with scheduling of workshops and other things, and I was encouraged to volunteer for HQ staff for the following year, which I did.
Which finally brings us up to ITI 2011. Due to Gretch’s work schedule, she was not able to attend ITI this year. So I went alone. This marked the longest period of time we have been separated since we started dating on 16 August 2007. However, frequent telephone calls during free time and occasional chats on Google helped us make it through the week. Besides, many of our ITI friends are married and also spend the week apart. So we knew we’d be okay. Everyone asked how Gretch was doing and where she was. It was great to know that so many people care.
In fact, this is the very reason that I find myself going there and back again year after year. I love the community of caring that exists at the Illinois Teen Institute. My first CAT advisor was Brian Weidner. He had been going to school at Bradley University in Peoria back in 1999. Today he and his wife live and work in Minnesota, but he comes back each year as a workshop presenter, and we also catch up. I consider my friends at ITI to be like a family, and I hope that they think the same of me (and Gretch). Two experiences from this year really capture this sense of family.
The first was a girl who was attending as a first-year participant. She arrived with her mom, but nobody else. She was alone, and she was scared. She wanted to leave. A few of us helped her through the first few hours and encouraged her to stay, sharing our own experiences. After listening to our first speaker, the Amazing Tei Street, she decided to stick around. I later learned that she called her mom that night and said how glad she was to be there. I saw her off and on during the week, and each time she had a big smile and was laughing with her peers. She came alone; she left with a network of friends and supporters.
The other is also about a girl, here for the first time. She came from another state. She is kind of quiet and seems the kind who keeps to herself. I don’t think anyone would look at her and think of her as someone who would be popular, or even someone who would hang out with the popular kids. On Tuesday evening, the teens participated in a talent show. This girl walked onto the stage and, without saying a word, put on her guitar and began to play the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. When she finished, 300 people rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and calling for an encore. Later on, she and one of the teen staff members, a young man who is a semi-professional musician, were jamming in a lounge area.
That, my friends, is why I keep coming back. It is because the world is not as bad as we are led to believe. There are good people doing good things. They say that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The young men and women and the Illinois Teen Institute prove that wrong. The youth of today are the leaders of today. I am blessed to work with them and I know that I am a better person because of it.