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Students Speak Up at Annual Youth Summit Day

United Way invites middle schools to create positive change

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With the opportunity to meet students from other schools, and the challenge of identifying ideas to improve their own schools, 127 middle school students gathered for a day of teamwork and problem solving at the sixth annual United Way of Northern New Jersey Youth Empowerment Alliance Youth Summit Day. This year’s Youth Summit was held at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown on Tuesday, October 16th.

Students from 13 middle schools attended the Summit, which focused on the theme of "Finding Your Voice" and guided students in developing and sharing their voice to create positive change in their schools and in their lives.

"Youth Summit Day empowers middle school students to be peer leaders in their schools and positive role models in the community," explains Liz Warner, who leads United Way Youth Empowerment Alliance. "The day is all about the students and is part of the process we have created to help improve school climate and arm our youth with the critical thinking and teamwork skills needed to thrive in school, work, and life."

Courage to make a difference

Students were welcomed by Sister Francis Raftery, president of the College, who encouraged them to reach for new heights by working together, realizing that collaboration enriches experiences.

Sharing a riveting personal story of courage was the day’s keynote speaker Ashley Craig, a junior at High Point Regional High School in Sussex, NJ, who started her own Anti-Bullying Campaign, Students Against Being Bullied (S.A.B.B®).

"It only takes 10 seconds of courage to make a difference," Craig told the packed auditorium. "After being bullied for more than four months in seventh grade, I wanted to make a difference and make sure other students have the resources to get through it."

"It took me 10 seconds to decide to get help when I was being bullied; when a fellow student confided in me that he was going to end his life, it took me 10 seconds to decide to run to the guidance office and get help; and it took me 10 seconds to summon up the courage when I was 12 years old to get in front of hundreds of people to share my story," Craig explained.

"I found my voice to do something," she shared. "It only takes one person to make a difference, and we all have the power to exercise our voice."

Craig has traveled to Alabama, California, and Virginia to share her story and inspire others to share theirs.

"Anti-bullying is my life…I’m going to keep fighting for all of those whose voices may be hidden, or forever silenced," Craig stated.

Communication inspires ideas

After Craig’s inspiring lecture, participants broke into groups to work with students from different schools to explore what "Finding Your Voice" meant to them and discuss the importance of speaking up and sharing ideas. Patrick Fennell, founder of Empowerment Solutions, LLC and Empowerment Institute, Inc., who partners with United Way to bring the I CAN intergenerational mentoring program to middle schools, led the students in their discussions and small group work.

Harry Hastilow, a student from Black Middle School in Chester, explained, "This Youth Summit was absolutely a great idea...it allows students to come together, share their varying ideas, and then see the bigger picture." 

"The most important message for students was that by working together, students can really make a difference and bring about change," said Carolyn Mungo, director of Unity Charter School in Morris Township.

In addition to the student activities, teachers and staff who attended as chaperones got a chance to learn as well. Teresa LaSala, a Certified Positive Discipline Lead Trainer who serves as a culture and climate field consultant for the Alliance, led a workshop that enabled educators to share challenges and ideas and discussed ways to improve school culture and climate.

Creative solutions

After lunch, the students worked with their schoolmates and chaperones to identify an important issue for their school and how they can improve it. This brainstorm session starts the process of determining the school’s focus area for its YEA Challenge, which students work on for the next six months to develop a solution and implement it school-wide, and then report back on the outcomes at the United Way YEA Celebration held at the end of the school year. Some of the issues that schools plan to work on include: strengthening school unity, increasing interaction between grades, eliminating cliques, and promoting anti-bullying.

"What came forward after the activities was the students’ realization that each of the schools has many similarities and common challenges," said Mungo.

The schools that attended and helped make this year’s Youth Summit Day a success were Black River Middle School in Chester; East Hanover Middle School; Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury; Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown; Harding Township Middle School, Lincoln Park Middle School; Mendham Township Middle School; Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Hanover Township; Pearl R. Miller School in Kinnelon; Pequannock Valley Middle School; Ridgedale Middle School in Florham Park; Rockaway Valley School; and Unity Charter School in Morris Township.

Youth Summit Day is organized by United Way of Northern New Jersey Youth Empowerment Alliance, the Morris County Department of Human Services, and Municipal Alliance Initiative of Morris County, with some funding provided by the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. The day was made possible by the work of many community volunteers along with the generosity of the College of Saint Elizabeth, which donated its facilities to provide the perfect venue for the day.

Click here to learn more about Youth Summit Day and United Way Youth Empowerment Alliance.

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