This past weekend, I had the opportunity to reconnect and volunteer again with HOBY. HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth) Leadership is an international organization that hosts leadership conferences for high school students. They have several different versions of the programming, but the main one is the weekend-long state seminar (NY has at least 4 sites) for sophomores.

I have been involved on and off since I attended as an “ambassador” as a sophomore back in 2004. I first returned as a junior staff, later as program assistant, photographer and facilitator. I also have volunteered with a few of HOBY’s national programs and our local area CLeW seminar, which is a one day program that students usually attend prior to the weekend seminar.

Typically, our site, New York East, has its seminar on a college campus, however this year, we were on a campground in Sullivan County, NY. It provided for a unique experience for the event. It was so nice to be back in person, as the last two years had gone virtual for the pandemic, and I was not as involved in recent years.

The connection we feel with this organization goes really deep. For me, HOBY was one of the first places where I felt truly accepted and felt able to know myself. For many of the participants, it is their first time leaving home and meeting people outside of their schools. Many of the students that attend our site come from extremely rural, small schools, which may have fewer than 100 students in the entire k-12 school.

The curriculum that HOBY teaches focuses first on discovering who you are, what you value and defining leadership for yourself. Next, it teaches about group leadership, community leadership, community service and volunteerism. On the second day of the seminar, all ambassadors participate in a community service project. This year, all the projects were working to fight food insecurity in our region. Students worked on various projects, including distributing free groceries, baking bread for donations, building “little free pantries”, packing “weekend lunches” for students who receive food from their schools due to limited access at home, various projects for the Sullivan County Federation for the Homeless and more.

Of course, we have our quirks, including funny cheers, and saying everything is “OUTSTANDING” – but it helps us all open up and come a bit more out of our shells. On Saturday, it’s color day. Each ambassador has been assigned to a color section, and on Saturday they are asked to wear that color. Some people get really into it, and it is an opportunity to show spirit and enthusiasm, as well as to feel a part of something. Each section then invents their own cheer and performs it for the rest of the seminar. In addition to the fun stuff and community service project, there are several presentations and panel discussions, as well as various activities to illustrate some of the concepts around communication skills, understanding your own values and what is part of your identity, as well as learning how about the impact of being dealt different cards (resources) in life and what can be done about it.

The students selected to attend HOBY are not usually those that you might expect, such as a quarterback or class president. HOBY ambassadors are usually those who have potential, maybe participate in a lot of activities, but have not quite ‘found their place’. They may excel academically, but socially, are not necessarily in classic ‘leadership’ roles.

Going to HOBY changed my life. I was always involved in extracurriculars, but this experience fundamentally altered my view of myself, and encouraged me to be more outgoing, more comfortable in my own skin, and helped me find the courage to get out of my comfort zone to speak up, take action and believe in myself.

Before going to HOBY, I didn’t think of myself as a leader because I was not popular or in a leadership role, in fact I was bullied. But after HOBY, I started to feel differently. I realized that leadership isn’t only about a role, but about how you conduct yourself and your life. It’s about going after what you believe in, and being willing to go against the grain. It’s about volunteering and being willing to speak up when others won’t. It’s going first. It’s doing the scary thing. It’s living in alignment with your values. And so much more than just a “role.”

Why do I go back to HOBY? Well, I am inspired to give back to the organization that helped change my view of myself and where I felt welcome, to hopefully inspire and provide that experience to the future generation.