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Teens from across the globe in Chicago to volunteer

Shivani Patel, 16, from Philadelphia, was one of the teen volunteers sprucing up Humboldt Park Wednesday. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Almost 400 of them fanned out across Humboldt Park Wednesday, armed with rakes, garbage bags, paint brushes and something not typically associated with teenagers — a strong desire to do some good in the world.

“The world is a beautiful place; I want to give back to it,” said Shivani Patel, 16, from Philadelphia. “Plus, life is short. You have to live in the moment.”

Patel was taking part in the week-long Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership’s annual World Leadership Congress in the city — an event that brings together high school kids from across the United States and the world, focusing on community service and developing leadership skills. The non-profit organization, named after the American actor and humanitarian who died last year, is run mostly by volunteers, with alumni totaling 445,000.

“What we firmly believe is that every young person has a value and can contribute and be a leader,” said Javier LaFianza, HOBY’s CEO. “Leadership is not about power or position or title. It’s your actions that define you as a leader. So consequently, let’s find out what you’re passionate about and go out and go get involved in what that is.”

Lucia Lifland (from left), Tim Schwitzgebel and Bri Colabianchi, all 16, take part in an all-volunteer clean-up at Humboldt Park. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Abi Jackson, 18, who lives in Warrington, a town just southwest of Manchester, England, was among those at the park Wednesday.

“I love how you can see a person grow when they’re volunteering …, like in confidence and their willingness to do stuff,” said Jackson. “Before, they wouldn’t step out of their comfort zone to do anything. I was like the shyest person ever. I wouldn’t speak to anyone. I’m so much more confident [now]. I’d get up on stage in front of thousands of people and just do a cheer on my own.”

Bri Colabianchi, 16, from Colorado, isn’t fond of the cliche that most teens are self-absorbed.

“I have a firm belief that you can’t just categorize everybody,” Colabianchi said. “Teenagers aren’t just sitting on a couch watching TV. I just don’t like stereotypes.”