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In its 10th year, Jefferson youth leadership group breaks barriers

May 3, 2019

For more than 20 years, Jefferson County Connections has been building up assets for teens, offering drug-free weekend activities, working to increase empathy and fight discrimination, and developing young leaders who will take an active and positive role in their schools and communities.

Tuesday marked the group’s 10th annual Youth Leadership Conference, which brought together teens from Fort Atkinson, Jefferson, Lake Mills and Watertown for leadership-building and awareness-raising activities.

Held at the Watertown Elks Club Lodge, the event interspersed guest speakers with hands-on activities that helped participants put themselves in others’ shoes.

The theme for this year’s event was “Speak Up, Show Up and Stand Out.”

Coordinator Tammy Foerster, social worker for the Watertown Unified School District, said that Jefferson County Connections started two decades ago as the Delinquency Prevention Council.

After investigating the causes of youth delinquency in the area, the group committed to providing positive, chemical-free activities for youths throughout the county, Foerster said.

Meanwhile, the group worked to foster positive youth leaders in all of the area communities.

“If you want to develop leaders, you have to give kids a say,” Foerster said.

At the core of the group, teen members from all across the county meet monthly to build links between people from different school districts and different backgrounds. These teens take an active role in developing the group’s coming activities and in recruiting new people to join the countywide organization.

This year, the group’s social activities included a dodgeball event, a visit to Schuster’s Haunted Maze in the fall and a beach party set to take place in Lake Mills at the end of May.

The youth JCC members from across the county have a large say in how the conference is run too, weighing in on activities and speakers and coming up with a new theme and T-shirt design each year.

The youth leadership conference brings together not only Jefferson County Connections regulars, but also a number of their peers from the area high schools, spanning different grades and backgrounds.

The event, initially held at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Jefferson County office, where regular JCC meetings take place, has expanded over the years.

Foerster credited Sandy Swartz, the wife of former Jefferson school superintendent Mike Swartz, with really fostering this growth through sponsorships which have allowed the conference to expand its format and bring in more participants.

Assisting with Tuesday’s event were representatives from Jefferson County Human Services, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, University of Wisconsin-Extension’s Jefferson County office, and the area schools.

Nick Whalen, a Jefferson High School counselor who accompanied a group of Jefferson students to the event, said some of the participants were chosen because they are already established as student leaders, while others were chosen because of their potential to grow.

Tuesday’s event led off with an interactive project designed to actually make students uncomfortable. Every table was given a cardboard box labeled with a certain segment of society, from Middle Eastern natives to people with disabilities, to band and choir members, to members of the LGBTQ community.

Students were challenged to write common, stereotypical terms on each box describing that particular segment of society. For example, a band student might be labeled a “geek” or “loser,” while a black person might be labeled a “criminal” or “teen mom” and an LGBTQ person might be called “gross.”′

These terms don’t reflect the reality of any individual, and even stereotypes which are perceived as positive (like “Asians are smart,” or “African-Americans are good at sports”) do a disservice to the people in those categories, possibly setting them up for failure if they don’t fit into the “boxes” in which they have been placed, Perry said.

After the exercise, students were asked for their reaction.

“I feel really dirty,” Lake Mills student Noel Lydon said. “I want a bath.”

Though these stereotypes are “ugly,” said Kara Loyd, Jefferson County 4-H coordinator, this is a good way to come to terms with the baggage everyone brings into their everyday interactions.

Once we recognize prejudice that’s rampant in our society and which might even creep into our own biases and reactions, speaker Marc Perry said, then it’s possible to move forward and consciously engage with people as individuals, not stereotypes.

Speakers for the Tuesday event included Perry, director of community programs at Community Action Inc., a not-for-profit organization aimed at fighting poverty in Rock and Walworth counties, who spoke on discrimination; Santos Carfora, who spoke on having “courageous conversations,” and Emi Reiner, Jefferson County Health Department nurse, who addressed vaping.

Meanwhile, Foerster and social work intern Cierra Brei led a session that simulated living in poverty by placing students into “families” and having them work out a budget given a certain scenario, established expenses such as rent and utilities, and random “events” that challenged those budgets.

Participants said the conference gave them a new perspective on how others live, such as people of a different color, background, level of ability or disability, or income level.

Corinne Stoutenborough, a Fort Atkinson High School student, said she had been to the event in past years and found it really valuable.

She is actually part of the core JCC group, having been recruited by a friend when that friend was a senior and graduating out of the program.

She said the JCC organization works well to bring people together from different schools and to engage everyone in working for the good of youths in all of the area communities.

Sara Vander Mause, another Fort Atkinson High School student, said that she feels the conference does a great job bringing what can be prickly issues -- like discrimination and stereotypes -- out into the open so people can discuss them and work to improve things.

“The speakers are really impactful,” Vander Mause said. “They really make you think.”