Nonprofit Leads Students to ‘Lift Up Long Island’

Students look to make a difference in community.
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Students strive to make a difference in their communities.

Hundreds of Long Island elementary through high school students joined forces Tuesday to make positive changes in their communities during the debut Lift Up Long Island event on Superstorm Sandy’s first anniversary.

The idea was put into action by Youth Venture, an initiative of global nonprofit Ashoka that inspires teams of young people push for change to correct problems in their communities through such civic-minded ventures.

“We want to get all schools to participate next year,” Lift Up Long Island co-founder Linda Scarth, who was “beyond pumped” by the day’s showing. “Wouldn’t Long Island be great if every school got involved in helping their communities this way?”

Students from districts ranging from Three Village to Freeport packed the International Soccer Academy in Smithtown, replacing for a day the pounding hearts and the sweat of athletes with raised voices of youth fighting for different causes.

Julie Foudy, World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist soccer star, encouraged the youth to “get comfortable in their discomfort,” meeting the pre- and teenage awkwardness head on. She asked the students to partner up and show off their best “worst” dance. The ice effectively broken, the kids then set off individually to find the category that best suited their interests.

The challenges the kids took on ranged from cyber bullying to the environment and homelessness. Experts were at each station to help facilitate what would eventually become student-run ventures designed to encourage leadership and entrepreneurial skills, but also to open the minds of the youth toward public service.

“Any initiative that raises the level of social and civic consciousness of students is worthy of consideration,” said Cheryl Pedisich, superintendent of Three Village School District.

The kids were encouraged to find a “galvanizing” idea that their entire school could get behind. They brainstormed, writing their craziest ideas on post-it notes and sticking them on poster boards for all to see. A DJ propelled the momentum as kids broke into smaller groups to discuss the how’s and why’s of their operations.

“What if you had no limits?” Elliot Jones, a Youth Venture team member, asked the stadium full of kids. “What if you could do anything?”

Linda Figliozzi, math teacher and student council advisor for Three Village, had high hopes for the day.

“When you ask these younger ones about the change they want to see, their ideas center around their schools: they want free seating at lunch or to play tag at recess,” she said. “I hope that this helps them learn that the world is bigger, that this opens up their world beyond their school to the world around them—what affects them and what doesn’t. I hope it opens their minds.”

Mike Sassi, an educator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, manned the environmental venture booth, where he lectured the students on reducing their carbon footprints. He questioned whether students had walked to school or if they’d taken the bus, or whether they’d used perfumed soap in the shower that morning. Armed with a purpose and a new understanding, students came up with the idea to mark recycling containers with the amount of time it would take for a plastic bottle to decompose: 100,000 years.

Ward Melville High School Tenth grader Heidi Scarth plans on bringing the idea to make sure that the school basketball courts are painted with environmentally-friendly paint to her varsity basketball team. Rich Guez’s Setauket Elementary School children thought of “Positive Post-its,” the “Empathy and Bullying” category’s answer to the “Kick Me” sign.

The students will take these ideas and with direction from the Youth Venture and Lift Up Long Island teams, learn how to implement them, from safe social media marketing and logo design to fundraising. They will reconvene in January at Hofstra University to discuss how their projects are fairing and go over what works and what doesn’t. In June, they’ll have a kickoff celebration with their parents to revel in their accomplishments—and to plan more ventures for next year.

“We’ve launched over 10,000 ventures in 23 countries since we started in 1996,” says Gretchen Zucker, executive director of Youth Venture. “There’s a suburb of Boston where 10 percent of the youth population are launching and running ventures. It’s part of the culture. We cannot imagine a better way to pull together as a community on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy to show the resilience and ability of Long Island’s youth to make a better world.”