Teens Take the Lead and Touch Many Lives

Posted: June 21, 2006

Gandhi once said that people must bethe change they want to see in the world. Each year, 40 young women learn to do just that through the innovative Take the Lead program at Mount Holyoke College. Then they make impressive things happen.

One Take the Lead teen successfully got a gender-equity law passed by her state legislature. Another brought Boston its first job fair for homeless people. This year, three teens continue this legacy of positive social change, receiving in May $500 cash awards for their work concerning domestic violence, the crisis in Darfur, and women-owned microbusinesses in Ghana. An honorable mention was also awarded to Lindsay Tanne of Mount Kisco, New York, for her hands-on approach to English as a second language for Spanish-speaking day laborers. To date, she has organized well-received trips to the hospital and a thrift shop, and she looks forward to creating other educational trips.

The three prize-winning young women attended Mount Holyoke's leadership program for idealistic, action-oriented young women last fall. They were selected from a national pool of nearly 350 outstanding applicants to attend the competitive Take the Lead program, which is held each fall on the women's college campus in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

A campus committee met in May to select the program's top three projects (described below). Selection criteria for the projects included the degree of difficulty, results, and potential for ongoing change.

Take the Lead Student Project Descriptions

Embassy Event Raises $26,000 for Women-Owned Microbusinesses in Ghana
Last summer, Emilie Kimball, now a junior at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C., traveled to Ghana. There the 15-year-old met Gifty Saah, a former teacher who had lost her job, gone into debt, and could no longer afford the fees to send her children to public school. As a member of Women in Progress's Global Mamas Cooperative, Saah did not give up. Instead, she started a microbusiness with help from the cooperative. Kimball was impressed that Gifty's hard work eliminated her debt (the equivalent of 556 U.S. dollars), restored her home's utility services, and put her children back in school. Thinking of Saah, Kimball returned to her community determined to raise funds to help other women benefit from such a successful program.

After attending Take the Lead at Mount Holyoke College, Kimball set a goal of raising $15,000 by selling colorful batik clothing made by women in the cooperative. In the end, she did that and a lot more. On April 8, the high school junior from Potomac, Maryland, held a major fundraiser for Women in Progress, sponsored by the ambassador of Ghana and held at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington.

The evening featured Ghanaian entertainment and food as well as spring and summer apparel made by those in Women in Progress. Kimball spoke to the 300-member audience that evening, and learned that--with vision and a clear goal--a project can take on momentum of its own. The embassy event was featured on local television. Kimball received an official citation for her efforts from her state delegate. And the ambassador himself exclaimed, "At a time when children and other young people are assailed and bombarded by all sorts of attractions and distractions … it is incredible that a 15-year-old girl [she's now 16] should be so inspired to wish to make a difference in the lives of not children, but adult women she had come to appreciate and love in Ghana. Emilie, you are my hero this evening, and I wish to commend you."

Weeklong, Free Summer Camp in Rhode Island to Offer Safety and Fun to Children Who Witness Domestic Violence
Laura Marrin of Bristol, Rhode Island, is an aspiring lawyer and a junior at the Moses Brown School in Providence. While attending a mock trial in a Providence courtroom as a sophomore in high school, she witnessed a domestic violence case. A woman with two children had brought a civil suit against her former boyfriend but was unable to afford legal representation. Inwardly upset by this lack of legal service, especially because the defendant had a lawyer, Marrin knew then that she wanted to do something to benefit the children of domestic violence. She dreamed of breaking the cycle of domestic violence by offering children a fun and free summer vacation. This year she will do just that, working with the clients' children of Sojourner House, a domestic violence agency, based in Providence and northern Rhode Island, which was founded by Brown University students in 1976.

Called Camp Eureka, the day camp for boys and girls aged five through 12 will be held at a secure location that has donated its facilities. Camp activities will include arts and crafts, sports, guest speakers, and music as well as an educational component addressing domestic abuse. Already Marrin has recruited adult volunteers, Spanish-speaking translators, teachers to lead activities, and her peers to volunteer as camp counselors. One anonymous donor will pay for a bus and fuel to transport campers back and forth each day. On May 20, she held an open house for campers and their parents, and she expects 40 to 50 children to sign up for the week in August.

In addition to securing a facility and volunteers for the camp, Marrin spent four months obtaining needed liability waivers and working on state compliance issues. During the project, she also lost her main mentor when the Sojourner House volunteer coordinator changed jobs. However, Marrin has since worked smoothly with the nonprofit's new volunteer coordinator. And Laura's mother has been her biggest supporter; they've spent hours talking about domestic violence and the impact that Camp Eureka could have on its young campers. Currently, Marrin is raising funds and materials needed to supply the camp.

Monthlong Focus on Darfur Raises Nearly $14,000 to Aid Refugees in Sudan
Originally setting out to improve conditions at a home for street children in Honduras at which she had volunteered, Elyse "VyVy" Trinh of Fremont, California, switched gears when she realized communication with that institution was almost impossible. Feeling inspired by her peers at the Take the Lead program, which she says "opened [her] eyes to how much potential we young people have," Trinh looked instead to her own school to create change. She dreamed of mobilizing the student body to raise funds for important causes. The specter of hunger and violence in Darfur, Sudan, was foremost in her mind as she set out to create a new tradition at the Harker School in San Jose.

Thanks to Trinh's determined energy and hard work, six activities during the school's Global Awareness Month raised a total of nearly $14,000 for refugee camps in Darfur. That was $12,000 more than VyVy had anticipated. Global Awareness Month is expected to continue annually at the junior's school because of a new coalition that Trinh spearheaded. The World Awareness Committee brings together student activists and those in other student groups at the private school with similar goals.

To raise funds, the Green Ribbon Project was launched in March at Harker. Students purchased a $1 ribbon to wear in support of Darfur aid. Funds were designated to provide chickens in the refugee camps because eggs offer consistent protein and chickens are difficult to capture during raids. An oversized poster at the school tracked the fundraiser's progress; the "Darfur Chicken-o-Meter" added an illustrated green chicken for every 15 ribbons sold. Another event, "A Lunch in Darfur," simulated refugee-camp fare by serving rice and beans in the school's gym to students who skipped their regular cafeteria lunch and donated the cost of the missed meal to the cause. During this event, Santino Majok Chuor, one of the Sudan's "lost boys," spoke. A letter-writing campaign got 10 percent of the student population to urge their Congressional representatives to take more action helping Darfur. And a promotional concert featuring a student-created CD was also organized. Art with a Heart, the CD included many student and faculty musicians with proceeds benefiting Oxfam America's water and sanitation projects in Darfur refugee camps. Also in March, Trinh helped organize a school dance; its proceeds sponsored a child in Honduras through the organization World Vision.

Trinh's work has not gone unnoticed. Already she has been selected as the director of activism for the 2006 Northern California region of the Junior State of America, which links more than 70 high schools. Trinh and her fellow students are now organizing another Darfur month for October involving many schools in her state.

"All of these wonderful projects reflect what Take the Lead is all about--helping young women develop their ability to make a positive difference," said Patricia VandenBerg, Take the Lead's director.

About Take the Lead

Take the Lead is Mount Holyoke College's leadership program for idealistic, action-oriented young women who want to make a positive difference in the world. Last year the program attracted more than 700 nominations from around the country. Selected by a Mount Holyoke review committee, 40 young women attended the program in September. The teens were chosen based on their potential for leadership and making a difference, as demonstrated by their academic, extracurricular, and community involvement as well as their insight and motivation.

Before arriving for Take the Lead, each student identifies an issue she cares deeply about --be it in her school, community, or the larger world. During Take the Lead, participants and their Mount Holyoke College mentors work together to develop an action project aimed at addressing the high school students' issues. The program also features workshops on topics such as community organizing, time management, conflict resolution, and publicity; movement classes in yoga; and guest speakers who share their experiences of making change at a young age and show participants how to use their youth as an asset.

Throughout the long weekend, each student also works on an oral presentation. With help from the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program at Mount Holyoke's Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, each student distills her project into a three-minute presentation. Using the center's audiovisual equipment, teens practice their speeches, videotape them, and critique their effectiveness with a specially trained Speaking, Arguing, and Writing mentor. The next day, students give their presentations to a small group. This experience clarifies each teen's thoughts and allows her to leave the program able to present her idea persuasively to potential supporters. Participants return home energized and armed with a realistic social-action project.

Related Links:

Take the Lead

Take the Lead Participant Raises $25,000

Read a Related Story on National Cathedral School Web site