Follow the leader

The power of Key Leader transforms students into tomorrow’s leaders.

Story by Curtis Billue
Photos by Allison V. Smith

It’s the day before the Garland, Texas, Independent School District-sponsored Key Leader camp, and a small group of high school students gathers in a circle for introductions. Some are confident and joking around. A few look nervously at their own name tags, while others are so shy and quiet that when they do talk they seem to almost choke on their words.

One young man introduces himself as Jorge, but then announces that everyone can call him George. He walks a fine line between shyness and confidence, not quite sure how much of himself to reveal to the others.


When George says he loves to play guitar and sing, everyone presses him to sing, but he immediately withdraws. His body language reflects the words that he can’t speak: He won’t; sorry. Not today, but maybe someday.

They finish their introductions and prepare for tomorrow’s sessions as student facilitators, leaders among their peers.

Though their appearances, backgrounds and interests are different, they do have at least one common bond: All of the students at this special Key Leader camp in Cedar Hill, Texas, are English Language Learners. From 15 countries around the world, representing Hispanic, Arabic, African and Asian cultures, they have come to learn the Key Leader way and achieve their personal best through service leadership.

“While I’m here, it’s the best feeling ever. You can talk to anybody, and they’re not going to judge you. My self-esteem goes up whenever I feel that, and I see myself growing, because I want to be someone in life.” — George

Mental wall

Near the back of the camp’s auditorium-size worship center, a towering climbing wall looms over the tables and chairs and bends out over the students. Looking up, it’s hard to imagine scaling such a structure alone without harnesses, ropes and guides. Many ELL students probably feel like they are facing their own mental climbing wall, without help, without support.


Some of the students’ teachers are serving as adult facilitators. They say it’s difficult enough for most teens to learn a new language and social norms in a new place, but even harder to overcome the rigors of schoolwork and personal problems at the same time.

Some ELL students are without parents, living with strangers who fight. Some are seen as expensive burdens and drop out to find work. Add family pressures to succeed, complex visa and sponsorship issues, and you have a mountain of stress.

“I was trying to do everything myself, but I just couldn’t because of my (lack of) English,” George says.

“While I’m here (in camp), it’s the best feeling ever. You can talk to anybody, and they’re not going to judge you,” he says. “My self-esteem goes up whenever I feel that, and I see myself growing, because I want to be someone in life.”

Change the perception

Margaret Rutaquio, ELL Leadership teacher at South Garland High School, says program founders Deborah Canup and Roseo Caburian wanted to change the perception of non-English-speaking students. Many kids were ashamed of being called ELL students and when asked to write personal essays, had horrible stories to tell.

“We showcased how beautiful it is that they have a second language and it’s not a detriment to them.” — Margaret Rutaquio

A passion for serving the community brought them together as a family, and quickly spread to other high schools.

“People began to hear about the ELLs and their community projects,” says Canup.

“When I learned about the Key Leader camp from the Garland Kiwanis Club, I knew it must be afforded for each student, so we worked together with Kiwanis to organize a GISD/Kiwanis camp so that as many ELLs as possible could experience the Key Leader program.”


Labels and assumptions

Warda, a Key Leader student facilitator, stands out among the crowd, not because she wears a colorful hijab over her head and neck, but because she beams with confidence and energy.

“Leadership has helped me in many ways. In the morning, I was thinking how I changed from first year to this year; how my confidence built up at this camp.”   — Warda

Garrett Pruessner, ELL Teen Leadership teacher at Lakeview Centennial High School, is proud of Warda. She has blossomed and joined every single club, activity and officer position.

“She’s become a role model for the rest of the students,” he says. “When she comes to the after-school tutorials, she’s helping other students think about what they want to do with their time and futures.”

It wasn’t always easy though. All of the student facilitators have a story to tell: about when they arrived at school and were bullied, or they were made fun of based on their skin color, country of origin or speech.

Hanna was called the “silent girl.” Warda was called a terrorist. Uy was made fun of because of his name. Overcoming prejudice from a few teachers and students for being different is not an easy thing to do alone.

Power of camp

During a breakout session, George encourages one of the students to participate and add her thoughts to the discussion. As facilitator, he listens and makes sure everyone in his group feels included.

“The students who are kind of loners and feel that they don’t fit in were really hesitant to be part of camp,” says Garrett. “But what I’ve seen since then is that relationship building and that bond where a few students in particular have really grown.”

It’s the last day of the camp. George is now playing guitar and singing with friends outside—and anyone can listen. He’s laughing and singing and confident, just like he is when leading his group. His voice no longer is soft and subdued, but present. He beams as other students call out his names. George! Jorge!

Michelle Corbin, ELL Leadership teacher at North Garland High School, sees George as a natural leader.

“He doesn’t see it though,” she says. “He has an effect on people that he doesn’t even see.”

These students are on the right path toward reaching their potential. And George might sum it up best: “Key Leader makes you be a better person.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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