By Nicole Ashby
Community Program Changes Tampa Youth from the Inside Out
Vicki and Louie Cazares immediately recognized the difference in their teenage daughter after she returned from "Anytown," a leadership retreat near their Tampa, Fla., home. "When your child comes home and tells you she had a 'life-changing experience,' you can't help but take notice," says her mother. Once shy, Renae had risen in confidence, joining a local youth committee, embracing persons whom before she had not. The change was so striking that next summer the Cazareses sent their son for the experience.
Like Renae, many youths, along with their families and schools, testify to the transforming power of Anytown. A week-long program, Anytown brings together a mix of high school students to help them identify who they are, what they believe, and how to act on those beliefs.
In approximately 45 cities across the nation, Anytown is developing thousands of young people into promising leaders capable of creating change in their communities. It is one of a variety of youth initiatives by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), a nonprofit human relations organization. NCCJ, founded in 1927 as the National Conference for Christians and Jews, has its roots in interfaith activities to bridge divisions between the two religious groups. The name change reflects the organization's continuing mission to create a society more tolerant and respectful of all religions, races and cultures.
"If we just let people live in their own little isolated hamlets, they're never going to break down these stereotypes," explains Roy Kaplan, executive director of NCCJ's Tampa Bay region. This summer, Anytown in Tampa Bay wraps up its tenth season, having reached more than 3,000 teens since 1991. According to Kaplan, this site has one of the busiest schedules, with two weekly sessions during spring break and eight during summer recess.
Tampa Bay also sponsors the only Anytown for which students do not have to pay. Three area counties-Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco-underwrite the cost of sending their students by raising additional funds to match school dollars. Pinellas, for instance, gets support from the Juvenile Welfare Board.
Witnessing a difference among Anytown graduates, school systems want to send more students to the program, causing the number of sessions to increase from three to ten in the last five years. "We've all become much more aware of the need to give our students some tools that go beyond reading and math," says Candy Olson, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board, whose daughter also went through Anytown last summer.
She recalls, among many examples of the program's influence, a local Anytown alum who started a student-teacher support group to help her peers overcome the issues they face, such as gangs and youth violence. Olson says tolerance is very important in a school district as large as Hillsborough where diversity exists along socio-economic and racial lines-half of its 180,000 students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and two in four overall are ethnic minorities.
"'Understanding,'" explains Olson, "sounds sort of fuzzy and fluffy. And although it's hard to define, it's the kind of thing that is missing when we see school violence: an understanding of how you relate to others."
In a week packed with exercises and discussion groups that take up issues from racism to ageism, Anytowners come to understand their own biases as they learn to break down the stereotypes that cause discord.
For instance, during a workshop examining the differences between genders, the girls and boys were asked to portray how they see each other and then how they would like to be seen. Many questions ensued. Startling to some was the revelation that in response to the boys' question "Have you ever felt you weren't pretty enough?" none of the girls felt they measured up to what they saw as a beauty standard. The girls learned that the boys felt equally troubled by their own set of standards, as each male participant stood in embarrassment when asked if he had ever been disciplined harshly for crying.
Evoking sympathy for others sometimes requires "a little bit of humiliation," believes 16-year-old Anthony Galvan. He said he was taken aback at what disabled persons endure after a day-long simulation, in which participants pulled a paper from a hat to discover who had one hand or no hands or was wheelchair-bound or blind.
The students' values are constantly tested in activities and dialogues, including talks about the Middle Passage, Holocaust and Japanese internment, which provide a larger lens of prejudices that exist outside their own.
"Anytown isn't about telling kids what to think," says Margarita Sarmiento, associate director of NCCJ Tampa Bay. "It encourages kids to determine what they believe. And once they determine what they believe, to determine how they're going to stand up for what they believe in." She says the goal is to mold leaders, instead of crowd pleasers, who will care about social justice.
Anytown targets ninth- through twelfth-graders at a time when they begin to carve out their own identities or accept roles they feel society prescribes them. "These kids are fortunate. Compared to most adults who are still trying to find out who they are, these kids are fast-forwarding through their identity formation," says Hillsborough County school psychologist Eileen Lyons, who volunteered this summer as an adviser for the first time.
The students are recruited through nominations by their schools or community groups. A number of them are already involved in organizations such as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club. At Anytown, students-called "delegates" because they are considered representatives of the schools and communities they will help change-are expected to continue a volunteer spirit beyond the program. Among the opportunities is joining NCCJ's "Youth Congress," an advocacy committee in each county, or returning to Anytown as a counselor in their junior year.
"The change is not going to last if they don't continue to stay involved with the kind of things that NCCJ is doing," says Sherita Anderson, a recent Vanderbilt graduate who has been coming back to Anytown as a counselor every year since 1993.
Anytown Tampa Bay maintains a roster of 200 volunteers who serve one or two weeks a year as a counselor or adviser. Devoted to the mission of changing young people's lives, many staff volunteers give up their vacations to support the program. They also commit more of their time taking training throughout the year.
"It's like a vacation in itself," admits Anytown adviser and former delegate Martin Nossett, who just completed the Coast Guard Academy. "It's so enjoyable to come back to see the growth from when we first get a group of kids to when they leave-to see 50 individuals leave as a family." Sarmiento says everything is built around creating a sense of community where students can let down their guard and share thoughts openly. After a week of pouring out emotions they can't help but make a connection.
"These kids are gonna change the world," Kaplan says, though he admits the change is not always immediately received in their hometowns. "Are we going to completely reverse racism? No, but we're going to show that there are good people in every community and that we can work together for the common good."
For more information about the Anytown program in Tampa Bay, visit www.nccjtampabay.org, or call 727-568-9333.
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Last updatedFebruary 4, 2003 (pjh)