Youth participate in leadership program at Show-Me State Games

Saturday, July 23, 2011 | 10:36 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A huddle of teenagers chanting "swag," giving way to cheerleading stunts, "the Dougie," and finally, almost inexplicably, the hokey pokey.

The connection to the Show-Me State Games might seem tenuous.

The Audrey Walton Youth Leadership Program, a three-day conference developed by the Show-Me State Games and MU, provides the link. The program uses team building activities, such as Saturday's competition to see which group could organize the best chant, as part of a larger program to develop leadership skills among Missouri high schoolers.

The conference aims to offer inner-city youth, who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in sporting events at the games, a chance to be involved with the festival. Jennifer Shear, special events coordinator for the Games, said the program was formed in 1995 to allow outstanding students from the state to shine alongside athletes.

"We wanted to form a program that was more on an educational level than an athletic level, yet still include some chances for physical activity and learning about healthy lifestyles," Shear said.

The participants, 60 students who are entering their junior or senior year of high school, are also given the opportunity to tour MU, participate in the opening ceremonies of the games and attend a conference on health and wellness. Fifteen students in the program are part of St. Louis' College Bound, a nonprofit organization designed to give underprivileged students support to allow them to prepare for college.

Marrtell Washington, a senior at Pattonville High School in St. Louis, is a member of the group.

He said the opportunity to meet new people and explore a college campus firsthand was more than enough to make the experience worthwhile. He also said his definition of leadership had been refined over the past few days.

"Being a good leader, it's not just about being the strongest or the most smart," Washington said. "It's just being a person who keeps everything together. You don't just talk, you listen."

Participants also attended speeches given by Gary Link, color commentator for Missouri basketball broadcasts, and Lyndsey Hodges, an MU alumna and director of special projects for the nonprofit The Mission Continues.

Laura Gavin, coordinator for the Audrey Walton Youth Leadership Program, said the event has settled into a steady routine in recent years.

Thursday centered around higher education, while on Saturday the participants headed to the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail to focus on physical fitness. While every individual’s reaction to each event varies, Gavin said she sees signs that this year's program was successful.

"When I have kids that were going to be juniors that come back before their senior year, that's how I evaluate how the kids liked it," Gavin said.

The early feedback on this year's conference is positive — Washington has already expressed interest in returning as a counselor next year.

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