A blitzkrieg of happy teen laborers from points all over the globe descended upon Humboldt Park Monday morning to spread mulch, paint and pick up trash — a godsend for the the Chicago Park District.
More than 400 high school students were taking part in the HOBY World Leadership Congress community service project.
The nonprofit organization HOBY — short for Hugh O’Brian Youth — is hosting the international gathering this week; the goal is to energize young people and get them to think big and achieve big in terms of helping others.
Their passports read like a United Nations gathering: Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, China, Hong Kong, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan — and each participant is referred to as an “ambassador.”
“I need to know I want to do in life. I want to open my eyes,” said Tife Akin-Akintunde, 16, from Switzerland.
Sophia Gianakis, 16, of Argentina, says the parks in Buenos Aires “are a disaster,” so it’s nice to see so much care being put into a public space.
Helin Zere, 16, of Turkey, was at her home in the capital city, Ankara, when a coup attempt roiled the country earlier this month. “We were not allowed to go outside. It was very scary,” she said.
Zere was excited to talk to people about her homeland. “I want to represent my country,” she said. “We have really good food.”
HOBY founder Hugh O’Brian, who shot to fame as a television actor playing western lawman Wyatt Earp, visited a hospital in 1958 in the heart of Africa that was run by Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, according to the HOBY website. Upon his return, O’Brian laid the roots for the charity that would motivate generations of young people. He lives in the Los Angeles area, not far from where the group has its headquarters.
The World Congress is for students — incoming high school seniors, or the equivalent — who have completed other HOBY programs before advancing to this one.
Participants are staying in dorms at Loyola University Chicago. The group will participate in an array of leadership talks and exercises, listen to speakers and take part in one other service project — packing lunches for the needy — before heading home at the end of the week.
For Sara Schelinski, the journey home will be easy. She’s from south suburban New Lenox.
This week she’s fielded questions from a new Chinese pal about hamburgers, pizza and buffet-style eating.
“It’s really cool. I’ve never met somebody from Asia or the other continents. I’m learning first hand their customs and traditions.”
The group imagined their camaraderie would multiply while toiling under the sun with pitchforks and paintbrushes Monday.