There was no school in the Papillion-La Vista district on Friday, Sept. 27. Most students were probably still asleep at 8:30 a.m. that day.
Not so for the 25 members of the district’s Leadership Academy who chose to drive themselves to Alegent Creighton Health Midlands to attend a Responsibility Retreat in one of the building’s conference rooms.
The Leadership Academy is a two-year program at both high schools in the district. Katie Damgaard, the year one instructor of the Academy at Papillion-La Vista South, said the event was optional for students, as it was a day off, but 25 of the program’s 35 students chose to attend. Students involved in the Academy are generally pretty dedicated, she added, as it requires a two-year commitment.
The first year of the Academy focuses on leadership theory and self-awareness. Students then put the theory into practice in year two via internships. Joining the class requires an application and interview process.
The Academy began three years ago, and the first students to go through the program are now freshmen in college.
“It’s interesting to see how they’re using what they learned,” Damgaard said. “It’s opened a lot of doors for them.”
Hunter Sorge, a senior at Papillion-La Vista South, said he feels the Academy will help him a lot in the future.
“I think this class has really helped prepare me for my career,” he said. “It’s one of the best class decisions I’ve ever made.”
Sorge is actively involved in both his school and his community. He is head of the robotics club and serves on three different committees on the Mayor’s Youth Council. He is also starting an internship with Kiewit this year.
Sorge said he attended the retreat last year as well, but he wanted to come again this year.
“I got a good message from the last retreat,” he said. “I came out of it feeling good and feeling prepared.”
The Responsibility Retreat is put on through an organization called Youth Frontiers. The organization is based out of the Twin Cities, with this event’s presenters, Kesiah Kolbow and Sebastian Davin, traveling in from Minnesota.
Youth Frontiers has been around for 25 years and has been in Nebraska since 2006. Susan Knox, the organization’s Nebraska School Relations Representative, said there were over 70 retreats in Nebraska last year. Retreats are offered for students fourth grade and older, with most retreats aimed at entire grades rather than select groups of students.
Joe Cavanaugh, the program’s CEO and founder, was at the Papillion-La Vista retreat. Although the organization now runs 750 retreats a year, Cavanaugh still tries to attend as many retreats as he can and even leads a few retreats.
“Our sole message is around character,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ve been getting brought in a lot lately as an anti-bullying program, but that’s not what we are. We promote kindness, respect and character — and people who operate with those three things will inherently not bully others.”
Cavanaugh said the events use a variety of activities to engage all learning styles and connect with as many students as possible.
“We try to engage community, instill character and encourage kids to be good,” he said. “In a world that pushes feeling good, we want to challenge them to do good.”
The program began with students playing games to warm up and break the ice. Since the event combined students from both high schools, not all of the students knew each other.
Kolbow told students that the goal for the day was to get the students to take responsibility for their schools and the culture of the schools. She defined responsibility as “the ability to respond.” The presenters used the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “healing the world,” to instruct the students to each pick up the “broken pieces” that are in front of them.
The students were given time to journal on their own about problems at their schools that needed to be solved, then each student was asked to pick one issue they would take on and try to improve. They then talked in groups to brainstorm ways to deal with the issues they intended to fix. The day concluded with the chance for students to speak to the full group about their chosen issues and plans.
Students pointed to school spirit, cliques and inclusivity (especially of freshmen and other new students) as areas in need of improvement.
Amanda Butera, a junior at Papillion-La Vista, plays on the softball team, and one of her softball coaches teaches with the Leadership Academy.
“A lot of our seniors on the softball team took the class last year and said it was really interesting and helpful,” Butera said. “I think it’s important to be one of the people that others look up to, and this class helps a lot with that.”
Butera chose supporting all of the sports as her issue to fix.
“We really only support football and boys’ basketball,” she said of attendance at sporting events. “Nobody goes to girls’ basketball. Nobody comes to softball, except for the rival game. We don’t even have a spring pep rally, only fall and winter. We need to come together and support everyone.”
Sorge also chose to focus on supportiveness.
“If you aren’t in a big, ‘brand-name’ activity, it’s like you don’t exist,” he said. “I’ve been in the robotics club for four years, and clubs like that or like the chess club don’t get any attention for our achievements. To have school unity, you have to feel like you’re part of something. I want clubs to get the same recognition from students that athletics get.”
The event ended with students coming up with ways to support each other and follow through on their goals.
“Everyone brings different skills and influence, regardless of activities or social status. Choosing to take action and responsibility inspires others to do so as well. You have to acknowledge the pieces that you are able to put in place,” Kolbow said. “Be present in your moments at school. It starts with trying. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to do something. Start to make a difference and leave a legacy of positivity.”