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Young leaders descend on Chicago

One official with the Chicago Park District was skeptical, even thought it was a put on.

Nearly 500 laborers? For free? For a day? To do anything that needs to be done?

But the proposition was genuine, evidenced by the droves of teenage volunteers who appeared in Humboldt Park Tuesday to spread mulch, pick up trash and paint fences. Basically do what they’re told — with a smile.

The 16- and 17-year-olds converged on Chicago from around the country and world to take part in the annual World Leadership Congress, which aims to teach young people how to become catalysts for positive change in their communities.

“We tell them ‘It’s up to you if you want to make a difference and make the world a better place.’ And we get them from just ‘thinking about it’ to ‘acting on it,’” said Cheryl Brenn, who organized the event.

The nonprofit organization HOBY — short for Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership — hosted the weeklong event — which will wrap up Friday with a banquet at the Palmer House Hilton. Participants were scheduled to head home Saturday and then begin doing more good deeds shortly thereafter.

O’Brian, who shot to fame as a television actor for 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. Upon his return, O’Brian laid the roots for the charity that would motivate generations of young people.

The teens scribbled out their dreams and goals on posters displayed at the conference. | Provided

The teens scribbled out their dreams and goals on posters displayed at the conference. | Provided

For Eli McMullen, of Okeechobee, Florida, that means helping wayward kids.

“I’m wanting to start up a mentoring program in my high school to help kids who haven’t necessarily had the best home life, because we’ve got a lot of that in Okeechobee,” said McMullen, 16. “There’s kids who don’t necessarily have the best direction, and I feel that if I can bring back what HOBY has taught me I can help them out and maybe put them on a different direction in their lives.”

Lisa Paravano plans to return to Turkey and work to expand women’s rights. “It’s about promoting feminism and spreading positivity into the reputation of feminism,” said Paravano, 16.

Participants, who are staying at dormitories at Loyola University Chicago, went on a scavenger hunt to see the city on Wednesday and packed lunches for hungry children on Thursday.

The point of the conference is to inspire young people to make the world a better place. | Provided

The point of the conference is to inspire young people to make the world a better place. | Provided

Paravano, who’s on her first visit to the United States, was surprised to also learn about the reality of street gangs.

“In Turkey, it sounds horrible, but we would make fun of gangs, like we thought it just happened in movies, it’s all exaggerated,” she said.

The notion was shattered Monday when the group heard Diane Latiker speak about her life. Latiker turned her home in the Roseland neighborhood on the South Side into a safe haven for troubled youth. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Kids Off the Block.

“It really opened my eyes,” said Paravano.

Hugh Tully, 16, of Schaumburg, was also deeply moved by Latiker’s speech.

“I guess I kind of knew it was there, but I didn’t know the full extent of how it affects kids,” he said.

About 350 of the 455 students taking part in the event are from the United States; the rest are from a slew of other countries, including Canada, Mexico, Turkey, China, Iraq and Taiwan, Brenn said.

The cost for participants was $1,650, not counting airfare, but a scholarship fund of about $100,000 defrayed the expenditure for many.

The program is in its fifth year in Chicago, and organizers expect to be here at least through 2018, when the groups’ lodging contract with Loyola expires.

Interacting with her young charges sometimes inspires Brenn to the point of tears. “You really do have a lot of hope for the future when you realize there are young people who want to make a positive difference.”

But challenges are not sugar-coated. “The reality is that failure is part of leadership,” she said. “It’s not all ‘Pollyanna,’ life will be easy. It won’t be easy, but you can do it … We do try to give them an authentic view of the world,” said Brenn, and that vista includes warts and all.

Brenn was elated to see O’Brian, 90, who has health problems and lives in California — where the charity is based — in Chicago this week to interact with his troops.

O’Brian is no longer involved the day-to-day operations of the group – but, Brenn said, “his passion for the organization has never dwindled.”

Hugh Tully, of Schaumburg, takes a break from landscaping in Humboldt Park - a service project that's part of a week-long youth leadership gathering in Chicago.

Hugh Tully, of Schaumburg, takes a break from landscaping in Humboldt Park, a service project that’s part of the weeklong World Leadership Congress in Chicago. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

No dream was too big for one participant at the weeklong youth summit. | Provided

No dream was too big for one participant at the weeklong youth summit. | Provided