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Lead-ND works to help local youth

Jarrett Lantz | Thursday, April 21, 2005

In his first year composition class, Steve Cartwright was tasked with writing an essay about the issue of educational disparity. As he sat hunched over his desk, he had an idea: instead of just writing about the problem, he could propose a solution – a solution that led to his founding of Lead-ND, a Notre Dame service club.

Lead-ND strives to provide South Bend youth with after-school community service opportunities. What sets Lead-ND apart from other service programs is that the participating children, not adults, plan and carry out the bulk of the projects.

During this past semester, 10 Notre Dame students visited the children at Jefferson Intermediate School to gently guide the organization of their own community service projects.

“A lot of students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and have a lot of different issues they face at school and away from school,” Lead-ND team leader Krystal Hardy said. “They’re the kids that don’t necessarily get straight As, but they have a lot of leadership potential. They see that part of themselves stuck as a ‘class clown’, but we’ve shown them that they can channel that energy into something positive.”

Over one year of planning and training culminated in a rally Saturday at South Bend’s Jefferson Center. The event, planned entirely by the middle school leaders, served as a launching point for three major service projects organized by the young students. At the prompting of Lead-ND members, many other unrelated youth organizations throughout South Bend designed their own projects during the month of April, as well.

“There hasn’t ever been a large city mobilization in South Bend,” said Meg Towle, director of community outreach and partnerships at Lead-ND. “We had about 800 people participating on Saturday. The kids were excited that something they planned had influenced other groups to create their own projects too.”

After the rally, 30 children officially joined in National Youth Service Day by completing three different community service projects that they themselves had organized. One group, whose members named it “Happy to Help,” took on beautification projects at Kelley and Coquillard parks by replacing missing basketball nets, planting trees and removing graffiti.

“As we worked in Kelley park, neighborhood children, intrigued by our actions, joined the project and helped us pick up trash and plant flowers,” said Ben Zerante, a Lead-ND member who worked on the beautification process. “As one of the children in our group commented, ‘We really are making a difference.'”

Another group, “Leaders 4 Life,” organized a meal campaign program for the Center for the Homeless. In order to “earn” funds for their community service project, the young participants had to create proposals and present them to the Lead-ND members. Once funding was secured from the club and other community businesses, the children put together 120 lunches for the homeless in an assembly line, including notes of encouragement.

“Protected and Loved,” the third student-led community service group, worked to fundraise for the Casie Center, an advocacy group for abused and neglected children. Using a wish list that the Casie Center provided, the volunteers purchased all of the items, dropped them off at the center and spent the day cleaning it to give the workers a break.

In order to complete the projects, the junior high school participants took part in a 10-week curriculum created by Lead-ND coordinators. Each week, the kids started with a large group activity that conveyed a message, whether it was how to work with others or the importance of networking. Then, small groups were formed where the Notre Dame mentors would guide the community service projects’ organization.

However, the goal of Lead-ND isn’t just to perform community service projects but to empower the children who organize them. Club members brought the participants on a variety of field trips, including a visit to the radio station 99.1 WSMK to record public service announcements, a question-and-answer session with South Bend’s mayor, Stephen Luecke and a trip to Notre Dame’s Office of Admissions.

“We’re trying to create passionate leaders, concerned citizens and active students,” Towle said. “Civic engagement is a big emphasis.”

Next fall, Lead-ND plans to broaden its reach in order to train more young leaders. While the program only took place during the spring semester in its inaugural year, club organizers hope to expand it year-round, include more schools and meet with the children twice a week instead of once.

“I definitely feel that there need to be more programs like Lead-ND that are about more than just tutoring,” Hardy said. “I think tutoring is very necessary, but if you can tutor a child and build a mentor relationship, then that’s very powerful. They can not only ask you about fractions, but they also have someone to talk to.”