A little child shall lead them

Torch Club youngsters take on current events
By T Martin

Picture 50 or so 10- to 13-year-olds divided among four classrooms and engaged in lively discussions on the top issues facing Americans today. Imagine hearing words like “generalization” and “analyze” pop up here and there as they voice their opinions on the burning issues of America. Visualize the Boys & Girls Club of Philadelphia holding its Annual Torch Club Conference at the Northeast Frankfort Boys and Girls Club on Kinsey Street, Saturday, March 6th.

Members of the six Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia – Bridesburg, Frankfort, Germantown, Nicetown, West Kensington and Wissahickon – united as one Torch Club of Philadelphia to enjoy a day of each other’s company, to learn from one another and to attend the informative workshops offered by four of the clubs’ leadership staff.

Pre-teens and teens were psyched about attending the conference, despite having to wake up on time for the 9 AM start, especially on a Saturday. Many were even first-time attendees, but looked forward to the day’s agenda with little or no trepidation.

“I’m not used to [mingling], but I’m not nervous about it,” said Tiquann Jamison of the West Kensington Boys & Girls Club. “I just feel like I have to work up to it,” he added.

If the young, aspiring leaders weren’t “up to it” before they started, they pooled their collective energies in time for their 10 AM workshops led by Renu Bernard, Alan Beckett, Angelique Wise and Stacey Holmes.

Tackling the issues
The workshops centered on tolerance, teamwork and awareness about current events, inciting interesting topics of conversation among the youngsters. Perhaps making things more interesting for the children, workshop leaders sewed personal experience into the mix to help children grasp concepts a bit easier.

For instance, one group playing a version of “Agree, Disagree, Undecided” defended their leader when she hypothetically proposed what would happen if she had to go on welfare.

One group’s discussion on avoiding discrimination by race, age, or gender surfaced some deep-rooted chauvinistic feelings. When asked about women being expected to stay at home, one boy exclaimed, “That’s right! In the kitchen! Man comes home, she should have the house clean and dinner ready! GET ME MY SLIPPERS!”

The children weren’t shy at all after a few minutes in a room with children they didn’t know before that Saturday. They tackled issues of gun control, the current welfare system, foreign relations, and even school uniform policies.

The object not being about right or wrong answers, presenters encouraged the youths to speak freely their opinions about various topics, all children given equal opportunity to express themselves on the issues.

Discussions remained lively until things got physical – for the better, of course.

Illustrating important points about tolerance and learning to depend on one another for support, presenters had prepared a number of activities to help the youths get to know each other as well as to learn to work together.

Increasingly popular games, such as the human knot, took center stage as children and their leaders formed a circle, joined right hands with an arbitrary partner, and then joined left hands with another member of the group. Their task: to unravel the giant knot their hand-holding had created so that they stood side-by-side with the persons whose hands they had grabbed. The twist: they couldn’t let go of anyone’s hand at any time.

Or students worked in pairs – back-to-back, arms interlocked – to go from sitting on the floor that way to a standing position. Sounds easy, but many children still ended up in a pile on the floor as they learned vital life lessons about interdependency. As if the strain of coordinating with only one other sitting partner weren’t enough, advisors bumped things up, and the kids had even more fun when they tried the task in groups of three!

Positive reflections
Kids like Tiquann got what they had anticipated at the day’s start: a chance to “do things I’ve never done before… and play games I’ve never heard of before.” Before eating the multi-cultural lunch to which each club contributed a dish, Tiquann told NF he had learned some important lessons and had fun learning them.

“I learned to watch what you wish for, and watch what you tell others!” he said. Bianca Lipocomb, another member of his club said that she learned at least one lesson: “People should just be themselves.”

The presenters and program leaders also found the children’s participation a strong indicator of the success of the day’s workshops.

“This is getting kids to think… about what they have in common, how much they’re alike… things like that,” said Alan Beckett of the Nicetown Boys & Girls Club.

Bridesburg Club’s Stacey Holmes hoped that the kids “walked away with what we intended to give them. They’re great kids. They deserve the best!”

Angelique Wise wasn’t prepared to comment on the children’s reaction to the workshops immediately before lunch at 1 PM, but she later told NF that it was “very encouraging to see so many kids pull together to be positive.”

The children also pulled together for another special cause: to express farewell wishes to Frankfort Club’s director Renu Bernard, who leaves the Boys & Girls Club this year. Gathering around her – and the three farewell cakes behind her – children and staff joined to wish her the best for the future.

Bernard expressed mixed emotions about leaving, saying that she was sad to go, but interested in what was ahead for her after years of service to the Boys and Girls Club. Going out with her boots on, Bernard volunteered to help serve the children their lunch.

Making fun of leading
Then came the big surprise in the form of a very thick and heavy rope. After separating the girls from the boys, each group along opposite walls of the expansive gymnasium, staff organized a tug-of-war competition to “settle a rumor of statistics” that girls are stronger than boys. About 10 or 12 boys gathered at one end of the rope, an equal number of girls taking the opposite end, and so began the tug-of-war games to settle the competition.

Tired and lacking energy, staff competed against students as well, first against the boys, and then against the girls. The children’s vivacious energies and hearty lunch gave them an obvious advantage against their leaders. However, NF was asked not to embarrass the boys by divulging who won two of the three boys versus girls tug-of-war competitions.

Doubtlessly a most important quality of any young leader is the ability to learn something new, whether of interest or not, and students learned that in an arts and craft workshop in which all members participated. Called on at the last minute, Holmes organized the children and showed them how to tie bows from ribbon for various projects.

As they worked, children still talked about the tug of war contests, current events they had talked about in workshops and the overall experience of meeting new people and working together.

Visualize the Torch Club of Philadelphia sitting at tables formed into a “U” as members chatter quietly and work with red and black ribbon. Imagine hearing the excitement that comes from doing something never done before or from sharing something new. Picture the 50 10- to 13-year-olds as the future of Philadelphia, leaders prepared for the world in “the positive place for kids.”

Torch Clubs are chartered, small-group leadership and service clubs for boys and girls ages 11-13. Torch Club members learn to elect offices and work together to plan and implement activities in four areas: service to Club and community, education, health and fitness and social recreation. Each year, Torch Club members from all over the country take part in a service-learning experience through the National Torch Club Project.