Leaders in training

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The Kiwanis program Key Leader helps teens develop the skills they will need to succeed as adults.  

Story and photos by Curtis Billue

It’s probably safe to say that as a Kiwanian, you find yourself often thinking about how to help others, wondering if the work you do is bringing positive change to your community. And with the stresses of growing up in today’s fast-paced, competitive world, it’s also likely safe to say that most teenagers aren’t focused on the same thing. 

Key Leader hopes to change that.

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Getting personal
Most of the youth attending the 15th annual Key Leader camp in Rock Springs, Kansas, have never heard of servant leadership or the Kiwanis family. Some are shy and tentative, scared even to raise a hand or sit with a large group. 

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But the warmth and humor of lead facilitator Tracey Devereaux gets the students laughing and mingling with other students. Soon, a spontaneous “chicken dance” erupts and the awkwardness of meeting new people melts away.

“I didn’t expect to make any friends,” says student Luke Schmidt. “But I made a lot of friendships here. People here are nice and friendly. It was a good experience.” 

Over the two-day camp run by the Kiwanis Kansas District, Devereaux urges the participants to share personal stories, taking them through a spectrum of ideas and feelings: empathy; introspection of values; respect of others and self; and the art of listening. 

Students spend time sharing personal stories during a breakout session.

_S7A8962“You made a connection in two minutes by listening,” Devereaux says. “Why don’t we do this every day? Take the time to listen; that’s what leaders do.”

Key Leader’s unique curriculum, community-building and soul-searching messages offer teachings that most other programs don’t. A focus on the well-being and growth of those you serve and their community sets this weekend camp experience apart.

“There are concepts that I’ve never really heard of before, but seem very relevant to the things that I’m going through,” says student facilitator McKenzie Gerber. “I am very touched by all the people I’m meeting and the new things that I had no idea about myself that I’m learning — along with things I can bring back to my community and school.”

Chaperone and Kansas District Governor Jo Schwartz notices an eagerness in the student participants.

“I think they want to do good in the world,” she says. “They want to make changes, and this is showing them that they can go back to their schools and start a Key Club if they don’t have it.”

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Values added
It’s game time. Call it the Game of Values. Students write down their top eight values on slips of paper, and each round they are asked to give up one. With each round, they anguish over their choices. Which value will they give up? 

After collecting the papers, Devereaux reads them aloud. Working hard. Teamwork. Time for myself. Open-mindedness. 

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He lets them all drop to the floor. 

“My heart is pounding, so stressful,” mutters a student.

Devereaux leads a discussion about what values we are willing to give up when we’re put into certain situations, such as when we’re pressured by family, friends — even strangers. He asks: Is there an integrity gap between your values and your behavior?

It’s exercises like these that cut to the heart of Key Leader. Life lessons for today’s youth to think deeper about choices and hopefully build a kinder, more caring world.

“I hope to come back next year and bring more people with me,” Gerber says. “I think everybody deserves to have some taste of this.”


 

Fun at The Inn_Meghan

A personal journey

A former Key Club member and Key Leader facilitator opens up about her experiences and how they have impacted her life.

Story by Stephanie Feinberg

In August 2008, I remember standing in front of a bulletin board full of pieces of paper with every club South Carroll High School had to offer. I was a terrified freshman in high school and wanted to find any way I could to fit in. I saw the name “Key Club” on one of those pages. Most importantly, I saw my sister’s name on it, so there was some point of comfort. Plus, they had to make keys or something, so that was kind of cool, right? I wrote “Stephanie Feinberg” down and passed the pen to the person behind me. Little did I know, writing my name on that piece of paper would turn my life around.

You see, the Stephanie I was 11 years ago is nothing like the Stephanie I am today. At that time, I struggled with my sense of identity. My grandmother had passed away a couple years before, and I had a hard time understanding what grief meant and how to allow myself to move on like she would want me to. I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder.

I found myself in a hole. 

Starting high school is hard for most kids, but it was harder for me. I remember sitting in the basement one day with my mom, who was genuinely concerned about my mental health. She asked me, “What do you want to do?”

I didn’t want to play sports. I certainly didn’t have a close group of friends – I just didn’t know who I was. Without even thinking    and I’ll never forget this — I looked at my mom and said, “I want to make a difference.”

 As I got more and more involved with Key Club, and reflecting upon it 11 years later, Key Club allowed me to make that difference and gave me my sense of identity and purpose. 

As I became involved in Key Club, my Kiwanis advisor from the Kiwanis Club of Mount Airy, Maryland, Jim Jacobs, saw something in me. Jim believed I was more than just that “Stephanie” with no sense of identity written on that sign-up sheet. Jim invited me to attend Key Leader. With the way I had been feeling, I took it as a way to escape reality for a few days.

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Key Leader is a weekend retreat sponsored by Kiwanis that is filled with workshops, discussions, team-building activities and more. These activities allow youth to learn leadership skills to change their community and their world. But Key Leader changed me and my world. After completing an outdoor ropes course, I texted my mom telling her I got a random boost of confidence. 

Sure, in Key Club we had icebreakers and activities like these all the time, so I wasn’t too sure how long this confidence boost would last me. 

But so far, that Key Leader confidence boost has lasted 11 years … and counting.

Key Leader is a phenomenal program that I could never speak of highly enough. I always encourage every Kiwanis advisor to find at least one Key Clubber in their sponsored clubs who they believe in, who they see something in. Invite them to attend. Kiwanians never know how much of an impact that simple invitation, sense of belief, and Key Leader weekend will have on that student. 

Kiwanians all have that extraordinary power. I think of all Kiwanians as superheroes. Jim may never know how much of an impact he has had on my life. And that’s the thing about Kiwanis. Kiwanians all work with so many children every single day, whether through K-Kids, Builders Club, Key Club, Aktion Club, CKI or members of their own community. They have the chance to be that superhero, to leave an impact on anyone’s life, day in and day out. They may never hear a thank you, they may never see the results, but they must know and believe the power that each of them has. 

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As my time in Key Club progressed, I realized community service and Kiwanis could bring negative things into a new light. I was ready to overcome my depression; I was ready to combine the power of the Kiwanis family and honor my grandmother.

After some brainstorming, I approached the Kiwanis Club of Mount Airy with an idea. What if I held a School Walk for Diabetes? The walk would be in honor of my grandmother. This walk could finally give me closure, give me a sense of purpose. Mount Airy Kiwanians told me to go for it. I held the walk for three years, raising US$10,000 total. Who was the biggest support at these walks? Capital District Kiwanians. 

As my final year in Key Club approached, it was time to take a leap of faith. I was so different than the “Stephanie” I had written on that board freshman year, and I was ready to take a risk. So I ran for lieutenant governor of Key Clubs in Central and Western Maryland.

As lieutenant governor, I started five new Key Clubs, my division was visited by the Key Club International director and my division project was filmed for a Key TV segment. I won outstanding board member and I got to go to convention and Key Leader.

When my time in Key Club was up, I’ll admit, I cried a lot. But I realized that just because my time in Key Club was over, the lessons and skills learned never had to be.

I got a chance to intern with Kiwanis, overseeing the general sessions at the Key Club International Convention in D.C. I studied abroad twice, once in Cape Town, South Africa, where I taught at a school still affected by the aftermath of apartheid, and at an orphanage in Zimbabwe. Why did I do all this? Because Kiwanis taught me that I could. Kiwanis taught me that I could do anything, that I could be that change in the world. No one, no diagnosis, could stop me.

“I always tell Key Clubbers what I do in the nonprofit sector is parallel to the skills and tasks I did as lieutenant governor. The volunteers I work with every day are inspiring, and just like Kiwanians, have hearts of pure gold.” 

In August 2015, I got that diagnosis I thought would stop me. About a week before my 21st birthday, I wasn’t getting ready to celebrate. I was admitted to the emergency room for a monthlong migraine. My eye turned in, I couldn’t feel my hands or feet and could barely walk. All I could think was that I had cancer or had had a stroke.

After my MRI, we waited … and waited. The doctor determined that I have a rare condition in which my brain produces too much spinal fluid, and my brain reacts to it as though I have a brain tumor. I started to lose my short-term memory, and the doctor was concerned my eye would not recover and I would not be able to drive again.

After multiple hospital visits, spinal taps, terrible medicine, side effects and emergency room visits, we visited Johns Hopkins. While there, scared for my first visit, my mom pointed to something next to me: a donor plaque from the Kiwanis Club of Eastern Baltimore. Emotions overcame me. Here was the sign I needed. Just as Kiwanis saved me in high school, it would save me now. I’m happy to say I’ve been in remission for nearly a year. 

I graduated college in May 2016. I knew I wanted my Key Club experiences to steer my future. So after college, I worked for Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic. And for the past two years, I’ve worked at The Children’s Inn at The National Institutes of Health, a place that provides a place like home to children and young adults going through clinical trials for rare and undiagnosed conditions. I get to help these amazing, strong children feel like kids again by providing support services and planning fun parties and activities.

I always tell Key Clubbers what I do in the nonprofit sector is parallel to the skills and tasks I did as lieutenant governor. The volunteers I work with every day are inspiring, and just like Kiwanians, have hearts of pure gold. That heart-warming feeling I got every day when I was in Key Club, I get to experience in my job. 

Thank you for bringing me home in 2008 when I joined Key Club, and for bringing me back home again in December 2016 when I joined Kiwanis.

I now serve as a Key Club zone administrator and Key Leader site coordinator. It’s my turn to give back. If I can make a difference in the life of just one student, like Kiwanis did for me, my job is done. 

I don’t think there are enough words to explain the impact Kiwanis has had on my life. Without the Kiwanis family, I don’t know where I would be. 

So keep doing what you’re doing, get more involved with your SLPs, invite students to Key Leader and get involved with local charities that help children. 

As my Kiwanis sponsor Gary Boswell says, “The program works.” So don’t ever stop believing in our youth. 

Kids need Kiwanis.


This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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