A middle school perspective on leadership

On the surface, these students look like any other boys in the St. John’s neighborhood – Jose is a Webb Middle School student who likes video games and has lived in Austin all his life, Kevin is a freshman at Reagan High School who was born in Mexico and loves to play soccer. But they do something that makes them stand out from the pack: Kevin and Jose are actively changing their community at the ripe old ages of 11 and 15, respectively.

Jose, Kara and Kevin before a volunteer project

We’ve been working with students like them for three years as part of our Target Graduation program. When we first partnered with campuses to saturate schools with the services that students need, we also adapted our Volunteer Project Leader program into a full-year course for middle school students, and over the past year, our Young Leader Society has been actively engaged with volunteer leaders at our three target middle schools.

Kevin, Jose and 48 of their peers are making a difference by assessing what the needs are in their own school, putting together a plan to resolve those needs and leading their peers and YLS members to fix problems. This is Jose’s first year in the program, but Kevin’s been involved since it first started. 

“I enjoy getting to help people in the community where I live. I feel like I’m making a change at home,” said Kevin to YLS member Kara Birge when she sat down with the boys last week. “I got to help people today during the food distribution because I can speak Spanish and English. Several people came through the line that didn’t speak English and the other volunteers needed my help translating for them.”

Because they come from the neighborhood, Kevin and Jose have a unique perspective about how to help out – and what they’re learning in the VPL class affects them well beyond the school day. 

“I’ve learned to treat people with respect, adults and my friends, because that is how I would like for them to treat me,” said Jose. “Being a leader means setting a good example for others by respecting people. For example, my neighbor went out of town and asked me to watch and feed their chickens while they were gone, so I went over to their house every day for two weeks. They didn’t pay me to do it, but it made me feel good to help them.” That’s exactly the attitude we’re hoping to foster. 

“I’ve learned to treat people with respect, adults and my friends, because that is how I would like for them to treat me.”

– Jose, 11-year-old Webb Middle School student

For Kevin, the impact of the program is also about staying away from negative influences.

“Before I joined VPL, I was influenced by some of my friends and classmates that were making some bad decisions. Some of them joined gangs and if I didn’t have VPL after school or activities during spring break to keep me out of trouble, I might also get on the wrong track. Being a leader to me means being helpful and positive so others enjoy being around you, and also spending time wisely and making good decisions.

Unfortunately, in neighborhoods with economic challenges like St. John’s, finding the financial support for projects like these is challenging and both Kevin and Jose said they’d like to work more on raising funds to support these efforts. 

Special thanks to Kara Birge, a member of our Young Leaders Society, for speaking with Kevin and Jose. 

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