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New faces mark new start for annual YEP conference

Students from schools across the region gathered to learn about leadership, mental health, and the importance of collaboration

Oct. 27, 2022

Youth Empowerment Project participants gather for first time since 2019

For students attending the Youth Empowerment Project conference, it was a return to a normal that most never knew.

The conference on Oct. 20 marked the resumption of the annual event, which hadn’t been held since 2019. High school students from Aurora, Reeds Spring, St. James, Webb City and Springfield’s Catholic, Central, Glendale, Hillcrest, Kickapoo, Parkview and Study high schools gathered in Drury University’s Findlay Student Center for the conference.

It marked milestones for both attendees — some of whom weren’t in high school before the COVID-19 pandemic — and the YEP program itself, which is working to rebuild after shifts during the pandemic.

“It was Winston Churchill who said, ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’ You’re going to school, you’re going to learn a trade or a profession – that’s what you’re focused on right now. That will allow you to make a living,” said CFO President Brian Fogle, who welcomed attendees. “But at some point, you’re going to pause and say, ‘I want to move from success to significance.’ Some of you are already working on that. You and YEP are going to get a head start on everyone else. The more we focus on others, the more we give, the less we think about ourselves.”

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Students from area schools attended the YEP conference, which was the first since 2019.

What is YEP?

Founded in 2001, YEP is one of the CFO’s signature programs and is designed to promote volunteerism, grantmaking, fundraising and education to involve high-school and middle-school students in community-based philanthropy.

One person who has a long view of YEP’s success is Kim Estes McCully Mobley, a teacher in Aurora, who has led the school’s chapter since its inception in 2012. An example of the chapter’s work comes through a pair of murals now gracing two walls in the community’s downtown district.

“I just think it's nice that kids see people being successful, they see them being positive. And they see that there's going to be challenges, there's going to be flaws, there’s just going to be bumps in the road, it's messy — but they can come back and be resilient and survive and thrive,” says Mobley of why the conference offers a benefit to students.

“I think it plants some really good seeds because they hear this kind of stuff from me and some of the others at school all the time. But they don't always get to hear it from everybody else. And I think it's good. I think it's a good, healthy thing for them.”

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Kim Estes McCully Mobley has led the YEP chapter in Aurora since its inception in 2012.

How to help – yourself and others

The day was filled with a variety of moments geared to wellness and inspiration, starting with a keynote address from Zach Troutman with Follow the Leader, who shared his story of growing up in a culture riddled with drugs and violence in Florida. He also spoke about his struggles with depression, and dealing with a friend’s death by suicide — and how to overcome.

“Growing up, when I was a teen, I made a lot of mistakes,” he told the students. “I hung with a lot of people who didn’t care if I lived or if I was in jail. We just were reckless. And now I’m 35 — I look back at some of those moments 20 years ago, I’m like, ‘Man, how am I not dead? How am I not in prison? How am I not in jail?’”

Troutman credits the fact that those things didn’t happen to his deep faith, which also is a source of strength as he has navigated difficult situations in his life. During his presentation, he shared suggestions on how students could rise above their own challenges, the importance of having a mentor, and the importance of good mental health.

“I just encourage you guys, whatever idea, whatever passion, follow those — when you follow your passions, it’ll put you in the right place to have purpose,” he said.

“No matter where you are in life, if you're not willing to serve, you can’t lead. You have to be willing to serve, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. I encourage you guys to always think, ‘How am I leading? What am I doing? Am I leading in a way that's going to glorify myself? Or am I trying to glorify the people that are following me?’”

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Speaker Zach Troutman shared his story with the students, which involved thoughts on the importance of good mental health and leadership.

Troutman’s words resonated with Pandora Johnson, a junior at St. James High School and president of the school’s YEP chapter.

“He had a lot of really good topics of compassion for people going through stuff,” she said of Troutman’s presentation. “It just takes sitting down with someone for a little bit to change someone’s whole entire day or month.”

Collaboration was also a focus of the conference, brought to light by a panel discussion among leaders with three area nonprofits — Crosslines, Least of These and Ozarks Food Harvest — and also touched on how students could get involved.

“If one of you were to call me today and say, ‘Hey, I really want to volunteer with you, but I want to reach out into these different areas,’” said Kristy Carter with Least of These. “It may be something that I'm not doing right now. I've never even thought about it, but that's something that we probably need to be looking at going forward.

“If you’re a journalism student, if you’re a marketing student, if you’re looking at all of those things, and those are where your passions are, don’t let that stop you from being involved in the nonprofit as well. Because just because we’re a food pantry doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways for you to help. And that doesn’t mean that you have to necessarily come and sort produce or come in and push carts out or shop for families.”

A break for boxed lunches — during which seniors could learn more about the process of applying for more than 400 college scholarships through the CFO — also gave students a chance to explore Drury’s campus and visit with others who were at the conference. Later in the day, the conference explored mental wellness awareness and techniques through “Be Well,” a program from Burrell Behavioral Health.

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Representatives from local nonprofits stressed the importance of collaboration during a panel discussion.

Lasting impacts

For some students, YEP also helps students find their sense of self and the support of a community. One example is Kaytte Forister, a sophomore from St. James High School, who has been involved in YEP for around a year and describes it as a “safe place” in her life.

“Before I joined YEP, I was struggling mentally very badly,” she said. “At first, I felt like I didn’t fit because I didn’t get to know them, but as soon as I started going to meetings with them and getting along with them, I found my place because when I wasn’t having a good day, I knew I could go to (advisor) Terrill, I could go to a different person in the group and tell them what’s going on and not sugarcoat it. My life has been a lot better with them.”

From Forister’s hyper-now perspective to Mobley’s on the long game, YEP’s effects continue long after students graduate and leave school.

“It's been a really nice layer the last 10 years to community involvement because a lot of our students are now business owners, they’re moms, they’re dads, they're coming back to the community from college,” says Mobley. “Our little mantra that we write all our grants with — the ‘All roads lead home’ that’s on the back of our shirts — is wherever you land is home. Wherever you’re committed, driven and passionate about is home. I just want them to be able to make a difference, make a positive difference, and not focus on the negative things.”

By Kaitlyn McConnell, writer in residence for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks

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