You just had to be there.
Within a couple of minutes of arriving at NUI Maynooth for the Albert Schweitzer Leadership For Life Conference 2014 one of my ‘moments of the week’ occurred. It was about 10am and I had just arrived at the front of the Iontas building on campus where registration was taking place. With me were 6 members from our Foróige Club in Drogheda, Mell FYC. I had literally just put my bags down when I heard a high pitched “Oh My God” followed by an excited scream, “Eamo”, and before I even got a chance to turn around, I felt a body slam into me from behind, a pair of arms wrapped around me, squeezing the life out of me. It took me a few seconds to register that it was a young person who was in my group last year and who was back to complete the next (Leadership) module. My experience was in no way unique. All around me, facilitators were being swamped by young people, which speaks volumes about the relationship that makes facilitating at the Leadership Conference one of the most cherished roles as a Foróige volunteer.
I likened the scene on that morning to the beginning of first term at Hogwarts (reflecting back on my old boy-wizard days now), the excitement of those who had been there before, coupled with the nervous anticipation of the first-timers. As a leader it’s impossible not to get swept up by the emotion of the occasion.
When given the brief for this piece I was asked to reflect on three areas; highlights, memories and my motivation. I could write volumes on each topic, so what I have here is an edited version and my own personal thoughts. Each facilitator will have their own memories and highlights, meaningful to them for particular reasons.
Where to start? The spontaneous clapping, dancing and cheering in the lecture hall each day before the opening & closing ceremonies and while waiting for the guest speakers to begin. Young people (and some not so young who will remain anonymous), most of whom had never met before, rising in unison to create an atmosphere which can barely be described.
Matt McCoy, a constant presence all week with words of encouragement for everyone, an arm around the shoulder when needed, a smile of acknowledgement for anyone he encountered while rambling around the campus. His natural ability to connect with people on so many levels endeared him to both delegates and facilitators and his devotion to his role as International Ambassador of the Albert Schweitzer Leadership For Life programme is undisputed.
The evening activities; the team challenge on Monday night, brilliantly designed to enable the group members to bond and learn things about each other while having loads of fun exploring the Maynooth campus. The Novelty Olympics on Tuesday evening, where the groups competed against each other in various events, urged on by their group facilitators. Of course it’s all about the taking part...(my team won – woohoo!). Quiz Night on Tuesday hosted by Matt McCoy, friendly competitiveness with a few fun challenges thrown in for good measure. What a buzz!
The big highlight of the week for me, as I’m sure it was for many was Culture Night on Wednesday. What an amazing night! An electric atmosphere and unbelievable talent. The confidence of those young people who got up on stage and performed has to be greatly admired, and the huge support each and every one of them received from their peers would do your heart good to witness. Yeah, if I was told I could relive one moment from the week, I think Culture Night would be it.
There were many other activities, too numerous to write in detail about them all but just as memorable. Karaoke night, sports, arts & crafts. Even the trips to Aldi with the delegates to supplement the wonderful fare on offer at the Phoenix Restaurant hold a special place in my heart. Personally, I can’t not mention the frisbee throwing. For about half an hour on Wednesday evening I got to relive my youth, running and jumping (and at one stage falling) around with a bunch of teenagers chasing a plastic disc. For that half hour, in my mind, I was 15 again. Unfortunately at about 12 o’clock that night, my legs told me that my mind had lied!
But you know, that’s what’s it’s like to be there as a leadership facilitator. It’s impossible not to get swept away by the infectious enthusiasm of the young people. You want to do everything with them, not miss a moment. We can rest when the week is over. The adrenaline kicks in and fuels the body and the mind to keep going.
So what are the memories I’ll take with me from the Leadership Conference or “Albert” this year? The moments that stick out for me and things that impacted on me? One of the first things that comes to mind was how aware the young people are of global issues and how they want to make the world a better place. I know in my own particular group I almost become emotional several times as I listened to them talk about inequality, poverty, discrimination, and gender inequality for example, all issues which I would have a passion for myself. I’m listening to these discussions going on and thinking to myself “Wow…if this is the calibre of young people who will go on to be leaders in their communities, their professions, their countries, then we are in safe hands”.
Facilitating at the Leadership Conference is a very intense, emotional experience. There is no doubt about it, physically and mentally it’s a demanding but ultimately hugely rewarding week. Each day begins early and ends late. For me, unwinding at the end of the night is a very important part of the experience. Relaxing back in the apartment at night-time, sharing stories, laughing together, crying together, uploading and tagging photographs, having the craic … magic memories that I wouldn’t swap for the world. Even among the leaders, friendships are formed at the conference that will stand the test of time.
Listing to Christina Noble speak so openly and honestly at the Graduation Ball is a memory that will last. What an amazing woman and how inspiring. When she sang The Fields of Athenry and we all joined in, it was one of those hair-raising moments. Magic.
Come Friday, it’s a strange feeling. The week has flown by in an instant, yet anyone will tell you, the previous Monday seems so far away. The nervous but excited anticipation of the first session on Monday afternoon is replaced by an outpouring of emotion as delegates say their tearful goodbyes to each other. Then they hug us and tell us how much we’ve meant to them over the past week which of course opens the floodgates for most facilitators too. The really HARD ones pretend to be grand, but we all know they go and have a good cry in a little corner on their own. (You know who you are). As a group we’ve formed, stormed, normed and performed. Despite the sadness of the farewells, the final adjourning stage is one of my abiding memories of the week.
So that’s my reflection. All that's left is the question, what motivates me to spend a week in summer being a part of the Albert Schweitzer Leadership for Life Conference? Why am I there?
Because young people inspire me. I consider it a huge privilege to be in the company of so many potential future leaders throughout the week. The positive vibes that radiate from them energise me. The saying goes “You only get out of it what you put into it”. I would argue that in this case from a facilitator’s point of view, the return is far higher than the input. We gain so much through our participation.
Also, because I have great belief in the ASLFL programme. It’s fun and it’s flexible and promotes self belief, self confidence and the skills required to succeed in life. It’s also based on humanitarianism and encourages young people to be aware of and care for others. The values it promotes are core to my own beliefs, so for me to have the opportunity to share these through such a programme is an honour. And let’s not forget that this programme is available to all young people. It can be facilitated locally and regionally throughout the year.
Finally, because through my involvement with Foroige, I feel I have discovered a treasure chest and become rich beyond my wildest dreams. Rich in lasting friendships, rich in opportunities to engage with young people and other volunteers on many levels, rich with memories. If I can give a little back by helping to build for a better future, then I think that’s a small price to pay.
There are probably thousands of photographs on social media from the Leadership Conference. Happy, smiling, laughing faces, all sorts of poses and photo-bombing. Each one of those pictures tell a story and holds special memories. But no photograph, or any amount of words can truly relate what it was like to be a part of.
As I said at the beginning, you just had to be there.
Learn more about Foróige's Leadership Programme by visiting www.foroige.ie/youthleadership