June 16, 2017
Despite the obvious differences among them, a sentiment of solidarity was most apparent as the students’ families anxiously waited for the reunion. Although it had been a long, trying week for the high school students at the remote campground, they were happy, inspired and, most importantly, hopeful.
They gathered in YWCA Central Alabama’s gym for the closing ceremony of Anytown Alabama, a social justice teen leadership summit that challenges students to think beyond the familiar and create a more tolerant society for us all. Anytown is about bringing people to together for often-avoided discussions in a safe, welcoming setting. The experience is about breaking down barriers, discussing problems and contributing to solutions.
“The delegates at Anytown 2017 were especially diverse in terms of race, culture, schools and neighborhoods,” said YWCA Director of Social Justice Joan Witherspoon-Norris. “Yet, as they got to know one another, they celebrated those differences and built bridges that will make Birmingham a more inclusive city.”
Representing nearly 35 Alabama high schools, the 80 students, known as delegates, prepared to say goodbye after cohabiting and bonding at Camp Hargis in Chelsea for seven days. Mostly, they had arrived as strangers, yet they left as enriched individuals who now call one another friends.
A partnership between the YWCA and the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the week away included discussions of sensitive topics such as race, class, gender and other issues. Delegates learned to respond to real-life situations with courage and respect, and they were empowered to return home and spread these values among their own communities.
“Over time, we bonded as a group,” Spain Park High School’s Reece Eberhardt told the group of parents during closing. “I had my eyes opened to a lot of things that I didn’t know about myself, and I had my eyes opened to a lot of things that I didn’t know about other people. It’s been really nice to watch myself mature, and to feel myself grow.”
Before leaving, the delegates exchanged numbers and found one another on Instagram and Facebook, some with tears in their eyes. They promised to stay in touch as they moved forward on their journeys, now prepared to lead by example.
Once home, the summer experience will yield lifelong benefits.
“The Anytown experience is designed to help students realize that we can be different from one another but still be united and want to see all people have the opportunity to be healthy, happy and successful,” Witherspoon-Norris said. “It will be exciting to see the positive changes they make in their lives, their schools and our community as they utilize the leadership skills they honed at Anytown.”
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