Truman Leadership Project sets out to empower Columbia youth

New summer camp promotes respect, responsibility, discovery and excellence.

Nicole Phillips, MU graduate student and founder of the Truman Leadership Project, has always dreamed big.

“My parents found me in my room with a print out of the White House floor plan, planning where my furniture would go,” she said.

Phillips, who has a master’s degree in Political Science, spent this past week with a group of 25 middle-school students, inspiring them to dream just as big as she had at their age.

The Truman Leadership Project was designed around MU’s four pillars of respect, responsibility, discovery and excellence to teach students to give back to their community as well as prepare them to be society’s future leaders.

Phillips said she feels it is important to reach out to kids at the middle school age.

“All the research is showing that by middle school, kids have already decided if they are going to college or not,” she said.

There are other camps that offer similar activities as the Truman Leadership Project, but Phillips said she wanted to take a different approach.

“I came up with the idea around September or October and started reaching out to other similar organizations … but there wasn’t really anyone I felt was doing it right,” Phillips said.

She then contacted fellow graduate student, Megan Ogar, hoping she would be interested. Luckily, she was.

The Truman School agreed to sponsor the camp, and the group began the search for participants.

“We literally emailed every administrator in Columbia,” Phillips said.

After offering full scholarships to anyone who could not afford the camp, the team ended up with a student from nearly every school in the Columbia Public School district. The list of campers included homeschoolers as well.

Most of the students didn’t know each other coming in. Phillips said she believes this greatly enhanced the experience and promoted growth.

“One of the girls, she didn’t say a word the whole first day, and then by Wednesday she was walking with a group of them eating an ice cream cone and laughing at Plaza,” Phillips said. “It’s been amazing to watch them come out of their shells.”

Ogar said all the students have opened up to each other throughout the week.

“It’s been amazing to watch these kids grow and blossom, even in just a week,” she said.

During the camp, the students participated in a multitude of activities including cleaning up streams and graffiti, making placemats for Meals on Wheels and writing to military service members.

Campers also learned about responsibility and respect, the importance of public service and what it means to be a responsible leader. They soon developed their own definitions of the words.

“Responsibility to me means being respectful, stepping up to your actions and not trying to deflect the blame,” incoming eighth-grader Sage Eichenburch said.

Ann Huff, also a soon-to-be eighth-grader, says she believes being here has helped her to become a better leader.

"It's made me a better role model, to younger kids. I can be respectful, responsible and use those things to discover new things," she said.

Students were also placed in an historical situation in which they had to make a tough decision about whether to bomb Japan in WWII or not.

The campers were each given a spot on the National Security Council and had to work together to decide what action they would take.

Phillips said the activity showed how responsibility and leadership work in a very difficult situation.

“One of the kids actually stood up and said, ‘What is the meaning of a life, how can we say that an American life means more than a Japanese life!’” she said.

Phillips had been very apprehensive about touching on such an intense subject but said the kids grasped the issue much better than the leaders had anticipated.

“It was interesting that we were split almost 50/50, who wanted to drop it and who didn’t, but we did choose to drop it,” Eichenburch said.

The Truman Leadership Project has set out to inspire students to give back to their communities, dream big and empower them to reach their full potential.

“We want them to know that you may be 12 or 13 years old, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change the world. The time is now and you have the power now. Age is not indicative to making a difference,” Ogar said.

Phillips and Ogar both said the campers constantly amazed the camp leaders.

“It is remarkable; as adults you think you will be teaching the kids, and they end up teaching you. It gives you so much hope. I feel really confident with the world in their hands,” Ogar said.

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