This past April, two of eight of our high activation State Programs attended the National Service Learning Conference (NSLC) in Atlanta, Georgia. Mandi DeWitt from Special Olympics Colorado wrote this great reflection about her experience at the NSLC. Here is what Mandi said:
The theme of this year’s National Service Learning Conference was, “The Time is Now.” My first impression of the conference, based on the theme was that it could not be more appropriate in relation to the mission and purpose of Project UNIFY. As we have declared many times, “Our young people are not future leaders; they are ready to take the lead NOW!” The direct link between the Service Learning and Project UNIFY movements is the ultimate focus on the undeniable power that young people have to make a difference and help overcome many complex issues that we are facing today such as poverty/hunger, social justice, education, environmental conditions, and health/fitness. Those in the service learning and non-profit fields recognize the importance of including youth voice and strategies to combat these issues. More and more adults including educators, school administration, community organizations, politicians, and other world leaders are realizing the dramatic positive impact young people can have when their unique talents are respected and utilized though meaningful leadership opportunities, causing them to redirect their focus to include new youth-driven roles, responsibilities and initiatives in their future strategic plans and best practices. Another similarity between Service Learning and Project UNIFY is the expected outcomes. After participation in these types of service activities it is expected that young people will demonstrate a deeper sense of empathy for those with differences, strengthened relationships and potential partnerships, more confidence, increased skill building, and a more positive view of schools and community organizations.
It was refreshing to learn that nearly half of the 2000 attendees at the conference where indeed high school and college students. Organized by youth members from the National Youth Leadership Council, they not only attended the conference but lead many aspects, including emceed portions of the daily plenary sessions, performed as entertainers, and facilitated a variety of breakout workshops. They also hosted a variety of interactive booths in the exhibition hall promoting service learning projects, resources, and future opportunities for young people, educators, school administrators, and community organizations to connect. The conference had a fantastic set of speakers including Grant Wiggins, Greg Mortenson, Naomi Tutu, Patrick Corvington and Steve Culbertson as well as more than 200 workshops to choose from. They also provided reserved time for networking with other attendees, groups, and organizations where I was able to meet up with other SO program staff such as Martha with SO Texas and Jenni Newbury with SOI as well as identify different roles within the schools such as a service learning coordinator that might help us navigate the schools system and who to approach with PU.