Merced youth gain leadership skills

By Ana B. Ibarra 

Several youth groups in Merced County are preparing to embark on “life-changing” summer trips designed to build future leaders, according to program organizers.

Building Healthy Communities, sponsored by the California Endowment, has organized four events designed to equip young people with the necessary resources to give back to their communities.

Next week, a group of nine young men, ages 15 to 19, will travel to Grizzly Creek Ranch Campus in Portola near the Sierra Nevada, for a Sons and Brothers Summer Leadership Camp.

Merced participants will join young men from 13 other BHC sites across the state to discuss the issues and problems they see in their communities. According to Michelle Xiong, a youth coordinator at BHC, the camp targets young men of color who typically don’t have such an opportunity.

The camp encourages participants to express their thoughts and feelings on a variety of issues, Xiong said. A group of adult mentors will lead the group in discussions about emotional healing and cultural consciousness.

“These are participants who are not as privileged,” she said. “Many times, society ends up favoring the privileged because its easier, but this is the group that needs our help.”

The purpose of the camp is to create a strong brotherhood and provide participants with tools to help them navigate their lives, Xiong said.

“It’s very important to create a positive impact on how these young men see themselves in this world,” Xiong said. “The amount of care and value given to the participants during this trip is beyond anything anyone could ask for.”

Similarly, from July 23-27, four young women from Merced will travel to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where they will join other young women from around the state for a Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat.

According to BHC officials, the trip is meant to empower young women and promote their social and emotional health. Kelly Turner, the adult mentor for the Merced group, said the participants can expect to discuss topics such as gender identity, equality and justice.

“It would be an atrocity for them to attend this retreat and not have anything to bring back,” Turner said. “The goal is to pay it forward. The plan is to host a workshop conference where the girls can share with the community what they learned at the retreat.”

The four Merced participants are between 15 and 17 and were selected because of their involvement with local organizations, Turner said.

From July 27 to Aug. 1, another group of students will travel to Washington, D.C., for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s NextGen Program.

Each year, the caucus invites Latino students in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades from around the country to participate in a week of leadership training in Washington. The event seeks to gives students a deeper understanding of the importance of being engaged citizens, more active and involved in their communities.

Merced will take three students who will meet with key government leaders and visit historic sites, Xiong said. She called the program a great opportunity to be exposed to a different environment and a different way of thinking.

“My hope is that they are encouraged and motivated to have bigger aspirations in life,” Xiong said, “because it’s one thing to dream, but it’s another thing to know how to build tactical steps to achieve that dream.”

On Aug. 4, a fourth group of Merced teens will make a trip to the state Capitol for the Sons and Brothers at the Capitol event. The three-day event will give participants a taste of state politics by letting them observe the policy-making process, meet with California legislators and attend a legislative hearing.

The goal of the Capitol trip, according to BHC officials, is to sharpen participants’ leadership and networking skills.