Students attending the Catholic leadership weekend at Brebeuf College School. Photo courtesy of J.J. Kakoczky

The evolution of student leadership

By  Erin Morawetz, The Catholic Register
  • April 28, 2012

TORONTO - Over the last two decades, student leadership has evolved and taken on new life, according to Greg Rogers.

“Twenty years ago, schools were just beginning to realize the power of student leadership,” said Rogers, co-ordinator of student leadership with the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Rogers has been on the frontline of this growth since the early 1990s, when as acting vice principal at Toronto’s Brebeuf College School, he asked to take the incoming Grade 9 class on a camp retreat to Olympia Sports Camp in Huntsville, Ont.

“I knew camping, and what it could do for kids,” said Roger, who had previously been the director of the Jesuit-run Camp Ekon.

“When I suggested it, the principal just looked at me,” Rogers said with a laugh. “The other vice principal said, ‘wait a minute, you want to take 225 kids up to a camp for three days?’ ”

That orientation soon led Rogers to the idea of a spring weekend retreat for leadership training, so that older students could be the ones to welcome the new students. 

“Sometimes the beginning of the year was… more like an initiation than an orientation,” Rogers said.

“That’s not the kind of school we wanted. I told the older students that (they) needed to be big brothers to these (Grade 9s) and make them feel welcome.”

These leadership weekends have now been running out of Olympia for 20 years, after the first weekend in May 1992. At the time, only three schools participated. Now there are three different weekends in April and May to accommodate all the secondary schools that want to take part, as well as a separate program for Grade 7 and 8 students.

In addition to growing in size, the program also changed form so that instead of teachers running the activities, it’s the students themselves who plan and lead icebreakers, games, discussion workshops, talent shows and other activities. Rogers said he now has a very passive role in the weekend and gets to sit back and watch students become leaders, something that is the most rewarding part of being a teacher.

“(We really) try to give our students’ a voice in their schools,” Rogers said. “Once you empower students, they’ll step up to the plate.

“It’s so great to hear students talk about different games and icebreakers that they want to do at their own school. And that’s the goal, to create a culture of leadership…. and give students skills so they can run orientations themselves.”

Many participants have gone on to become well-known leaders. Notably Marc Kielburger, co-founder with his brother Craig of Free The Children, an international non-profit that works to engage and empower youth. He participated in one of the first years of the leadership weekends.

“Marc’s been a keynote speaker before,” Rogers said. “I’m always proud of him and what he’s been able to accomplish.”

But Rogers said there are many other former participants who have flourished into leaders in their schools and communities.

Alex Zappone went to the leadership weekend in his Grade 12 year and is now studying at the University of Toronto to become a Catholic high school teacher. Zappone said his time at the camp is actually what set him on the path he is on now.

“There’s so much energy, so much passion, so much excitement,” Zappone said. “(The weekend) really turned me on to leadership — and specifically Catholic leadership.”

Ashisha Persaud, a student at Ryerson University in Toronto who works with Focus on Youth, a leadership-based program for inner-city children, said it was her time at Olympia that really brought out the leader in her.

“I found myself doing things that I had no idea I was even capable of, like public speaking. I always hated public speaking but Camp Olympia does something to make you forget your fears,” Persaud said.

“I actually got up in front of leaders of 15 schools and hosted a talent show, which is something you would never even see me doing in my own school. Everyone is friendly and ready to cheer you on.”

Both Zappone and Persaud said that they’ve maintained friendships from their weekends at Olympia, something that Rogers said is an added benefit of the camp.

“You get students from all different schools meeting each other and forming connections,” Rogers said.

“It helps them go back and create a welcoming environment in their school, an environment of belonging,

“The skills they gain will help them be leaders in all areas of their lives.”

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