By Stan Torzewski
On a rainy Saturday morning in November, as many teenagers were sleeping off a busy week, six young men arose with a goal — to LIFT their community.
The mission on that particular Saturday was to paint a daycare classroom at the Southwest Louisville YMCA. Those young men, whom I see walking the halls of Fern Creek High School every day, inspired me with their diligence, their positivity and their commitment to service. That Saturday, and all of their service work, is time well spent.
These high school students strive to LEARN (L) about ways they can give back, lending a willing spirit and helping hand. They INVEST (I) their time and effort into personal development and developing leadership skills in others. They develop FELLOWSHIP (F) within their spheres of influence, creating positive relationships and building networks. They lead by example and TEACH (T) other young — and older — people what it means to be an agent of positive social change. These are the values and goals of LIFT, a Jefferson County Public Schools student mentoring and leadership fellowship.
Ever since my career in education began 12 years ago, I have always felt that high school students get a bad rap. For each teenager that a department store manager legitimately should follow around the store to deter theft, there a dozens of others that could be trusted to count the money and lock up at closing time. Ageism is prevalent and sometimes works against teens.
The teenage years are highly formative. The experiences and relationships made at this age can profoundly influence the trajectory of a young person’s life, for good or bad. Most people during their teenage years engage in activities and behavior that resemble their peers, even if it causes personal dissonance. To stand and walk contrary to the winds of peer pressure is a battle that few people, old or young, take on willingly.
The LIFT program exists to develop leaders, not just student leaders, but lifelong leaders. These are the kind of leaders who are rooted in principle and integrity; roots that enable them to stand tall when those contrary winds arise. The LIFT fellowship grows people that lead through their actions.
Junior LIFT fellow Sam Salgado told me, “This experience definitely helps refine what I call character for all of us. … Being a part of this group gives me immense pride in who I am and what I stand for.”
Why don’t we teach our youth to give back to their communities when and where they can? Teenagers, even the most troubled, will choose to impact their environments positively if they are led to those opportunities. Why don’t we raise expectations of character and principle at the same time that we are striving to raise academic expectations for our students?
Every teenager has the potential to be the one that the manager needs to follow around the store. And every teenager has the capacity to be the one that can be trusted to lock up at closing time. The switch between one path and another will be flipped. Will it be positivity and inspiration that flips it? Or lack of direction resulting in following the “pack” to poor decisions?
Young people yearn to become a part of something bigger than themselves. My charge to them is this: Go. Find your peers that want to change their world. Be a kite against the winds of peer pressure and naysayers, allowing those opposing winds to lift you higher. You are your brother’s keeper. Who can you inspire to become tomorrow’s community leaders?
Most teens, burdened by transitional insecurities, do not realize or believe they can lead until well after high school. But that’s our job as educators — to shape, to mold, to model, to LIFT.
Stan Torzewski is a twelfth year National Board certified teacher in his second year at Fern Creek High School in Louisville. In addition to teaching, Torzewski has served in administrative roles in Nelson County and Oldham County. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Murray State University in 2004, and a Master’s in educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati in 2008.