The theme centered on community service with “Living A Life of Service: Giving Back to Your Community” as its motto for the program. The purpose of the conference was to increase awareness among students and parents of the need and importance of volunteerism. David Young, director of EXCELlence Programs and Toledo EXCEL, stressed the importance of social responsibility.
According to a press release, he said: “We hope to encourage and inspire youth to volunteer their time, talent and treasure to social service organizations.”
The conference began with a musical prelude and processional of conference dais members. Alexis Means, reporter with 13 ABC Action News, was the mistress of ceremonies. Rebecca Wilson, an EXCEL participant and UT student, sang the National Anthem.
To set the mood for the program, Jennifer Hojnacki, an EXCEL high school student, read a poem titled “Giving.” The welcome and greetings bought notice of influential people such as Mayor Michael Bell, local NAACP President WilliAnn Moore, Toledo City Councilmen Michael Ashford, Phil Copeland, and State Rep. Edna Brown.
Following these introductions were the “student spotlights.” The importance of this feature was to give recognition to those who have overcome major obstacles in their lives and are still going strong, trying to make a better place for others. Xiaopeng Burnham and Stormi Minifed, both students in EXCEL Group XXI and both virtually abandoned at birth on opposite ends of the globe, were spotlighted along with their adoptive families.
Also spotlighted was Andrea Hill, an undergraduate at UT and the valedictorian of her graduating class at Rogers High School, who spoke of her success that came about in spite of dire family circumstances.
The special highlight of the plenary session was the keynote speaker, activist and philanthropist Malaak Compton- Rock, actor Chris Rock’s wife.
Compton-Rock’s list of community efforts is endless. She sits on the board of directors of The Children’s Defense Fund and The Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. She also is the Global Ambassador for The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Global Promise Fund and belongs to numerous organizations dealing with global poverty, child abuse prevention and other issues.
In 2008, she began The Angelrock Project, an online e-village that promotes “volunteerism, social responsibility and sustainable change.” Her recent initiative, Journey for Change, took at-risk youth from Brooklyn and gave them an opportunity to travel to South Africa to engage them in global service.
A video clip, thanks to CNN’s Black in America 2: Tomorrow’s Leaders, showed how the experience and overseas journey affected the youth. It highlighted the problems in South Africa such as the AIDS epidemic where there are 1.4 million orphans and an increase of grandmother/child-led households as a result of parents dying from disease (one in five adults have HIV/AIDS). Compton-Rock even adopted one of those orphans from the grandmother-led household featured in the film.
“You Learn. You Earn. You Return.” That message by Compton-Rock during her speech emphasized unselfishness by giving back to those who are not as fortunate. She stressed four points about improving one’s and community: advocacy, exercising consumer rights daily (thinking about purchases, etc.), tithing and volunteering. She gave ideas for websites that people can visit to find volunteer organizations such as volunteermatch.com and dosomething.org.
Following her speech, closing remarks were given and the student and parent breakout sessions began. The student breakout session gave participants the opportunity to communicate with local community activists. The panel consisted of: Shawna Woody, director of Program Operations of the Boys and Girls Club; Jason Daniels, vice president of Strategic Initiatives from United Way; and Dan Rogers, president and CEO of Cherry Street Mission. The panel presented advice and insight on the importance of volunteering.
“It’s not just about you,” Woody said. “You will see that once you volunteer.”
Rodgers gave statistics that demonstrated the reality of the urgency. “Toledo is the eighth poorest city between Detroit and Cleveland. Volunteerism is a part of our World,” said Rogers
Across the way, the parents’ session offered ideas on how parents can help the youth stay out of trouble in school and in the community and explained the laws that directly affect their children. The session also instructed the parents on how their children should interact with law enforcement respectfully and appropriately. The session’s speaker was Dana Slay, community service officer for the City of Toledo Police Department.
There was also a special presentation by Margarita De León, partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.
The success of the conference was displayed in the growing involvement of staff, students and community. After 26 years—the first conference was held in January of 1985—the Office of EXCELlence, along with Toledo EXCEL (founded in 1988) continues to uplift minorities (African, Native, Latino, Asian Americans and others) in high school and higher education. Along with the endless educational opportunities available, the program focuses on self-esteem, cultural awareness, and other positive attributes that can create an active citizen. The Office of EXCELlence administers to Toledo EXCEL, Toledo Prep/Tech, Upward Bound, and Student Support Services (SSS).
Next year’s event, the 27th Annual Conference for Aspiring Minority Youth, will be held on Saturday, January 29, 2011.