Young campers learn leadership, philanthropy at NIU summer camp to spur civic engagement

High school students from across Illinois attended NIU's HELP Camp.
High school students from across Illinois attended NIU's HELP Camp.

Erika Weeden will launch an organization near Mother McAuley High School to help clean up her community on the South Side of Chicago.

Olivia Guerra will teach more of her teenage peers at Rock Falls High School about the Search Institute’s “40 developmental assets” that help to foster healthy, caring and responsible adults.

Emily Rohman will expand her efforts to counsel other teenagers at Glenbard West High School who struggle from being bullied.

Weeden, Guerra and Rohman, along with 12 other high school juniors and seniors, spent three enlightening and empowering days on the NIU campus last week as part of the Huskie Enterprise in Leadership and Philanthropy camp.

“I do have a passion for helping other people, and that’s what philanthropy is,” said Rohman, 16, a junior who lives in Glen Ellyn. “Reading through what the program was about, I wanted to learn more. I thought I should take advantage of this opportunity.”

“I’m already involved in some leadership things in my community, and I thought this would be a good way to learn more about leadership, expand what I know and grow in that respect,” Guerra added. “It inspired me to do more.”

Logo of the NIU FoundationFunded by a Venture Grant from the NIU Foundation, HELP is an innovative, interdisciplinary project to develop civic engagement in high-performing Illinois high school students, recruit these high-performing students to NIU and cultivate the understanding and spirit of philanthropy.

Participants boast GPAs of 3.5 or higher, and have committed to returning to campus next spring to attend a half-day “international projects update” meeting.

“We ended up with an awesome, diverse group of students,” said Kate Braser, one of the five project coordinators. “I was seriously so amazed. I don’t think I was like that in high school.”

HELP tapped the expertise of the NIU Honors Program, the Office of Student Academic Success and the colleges of Business and Liberal Arts & Sciences.

In addition to Braser, a former project coordinator at the Honors Program who now works in the Alumni Association, camp coordinators included Dana Gautcher (director of the Office of Student Academic Success); Judy Santacaterina (director of the Bachelor of General Studies program in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences); Nancy Castle (professor of rehabilitation counseling in the College of Health and Human Sciences and former interim director of the Honors Program); and Betsy Hendrey (office support specialist in the Office of Student Academic Success).

Current NIU Honors students served as leaders of the camp, most of which took place in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, Altgeld Hall and the Stevenson Towers residence hall.

Activities began Monday, July 18, with an overview of leadership and public speaking skills.

Gautcher led an exercise to help the campers learn their leadership strength and weaknesses as they determined what kind of leaders they are.

Santacaterina, longtime coach of NIU’s forensics team, then conducted a workshop on public speaking. Every camper delivered a speech and heard Santacaterina’s feedback.

Tuesday brought the “last lecture” of Christopher Jones, the new associate vice provost for University Honors. Campers also learned how to use Blackboard and set up a Blackboard community to stay in touch.

Most of Tuesday’s workshops focused on philanthropy, however, including guest appearances from Dennis Barsema and Father Godwin Asuquo, former pastor of the Newman Center.

Barsema and Asuquo spoke about microfinance, in which organizations make tiny business start-up loans in the $50 to $100 range to the poorest of the world’s poor, and the challenges faced in those countries where microfinancing is a growing enterprise.

Dennis Barsema talks about microfinance during a workshop in Altgeld Hall.
Dennis Barsema talks about microfinance during a workshop in Altgeld Hall.

Although the Venture Grant covered the camp’s operating expenses, each student paid only $20 to attend the camp. That $300 became a microfinance loan to Se Mas Microfinanzas, a group that will distribute those dollars to entrepreneurs in a small, impoverished town in Mexico.

“We’ll get weekly updates our loan to see if it’s being paid off and how our money is making progress,” Braser said.

Campers also met local teens involved in Youth Engaged in Philanthropy (YEP), a project of the DeKalb County Community Foundation.

“They’re the same age as our campers,” Braser said. “They led a workshop where they actually looked at a real grant and went through the decision-making process to determine if they would award money to that grant.”

Local teens involved in the DeKalb County Community Foundation's Youth Engaged in Philanthropy program worked with the HELP campers.
Local teens involved in the DeKalb County Community Foundation's Youth Engaged in Philanthropy program worked with the HELP campers.

Weeden, a 17-year-old member of the Catherine McAuley Honors Scholars Program at her high school, enjoyed the YEP presentation the most.

“You could actually relate to them,” said Weeden, who will start her senior year this fall and plans to study psychology in college. “I saw I can truly make a difference, even though I’m a kid. Most people think you really can’t do anything, but it’s doing little things.”

“One little thing can make such a big difference,” agreed Rohman, who plans to pursue a career in medicine and public health.

Guerra, a 17-year-old senior this fall who’s considering an art education major in college, said she will tell her friends in the Rock Falls-based Building Lasting Impressions that Never Die group about the NIU camp. “They might want to experience the same stuff,” she said.

That’s exactly what Braser, Gautcher, Santacaterina, Castle and Hendrey want to hear.

The five are “definitely interested” in offering the camp next summer and would like to make it longer than three days, something many of last week’s campers wanted.

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