July 3, 2018

This year, the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) hosted the 29th Annual National Service-Learning Conference at the Intercontinental St. Paul Riverfront Hotel in St. Paul, MN. The conference took place from March 11th through the 13th, and over 600 youth and adults participated. Among them were six Shinnyo-en Junior Youth (JRYA) and Youth Association (YA) members, along with one adult Shinnyo-en practitioner. In addition, two grantee organizations, The Honeycomb Project from Chicago, IL, and Youth Community Service (YCS) from Palo Alto, CA were sponsored by Shinnyo-en Foundation (SEF) to participate in the conference.

On our first day together before the conference, the Foundation sponsored participants took a field trip to the Minnesota History Center to learn about the history of the host city, St. Paul. This also provided an opportunity for all of the participants to become acquainted with one another since previous to meeting in St. Paul, the participants were either unfamiliar with each other or had not met before.

The most notable exhibit among many was the exhibit on the year 1968. The year 1968 remains one of the most tumultuous years in American history. It was marked by the shocking assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the horrors of the Vietnam War, the salute to the Black Power Movement at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and the uplifting success of Apollo 8’s Moon orbit. There was also an interesting and engaging exhibit which highlighted the struggles and challenges immigrant families faced in St. Paul throughout several eras.

After returning from the Minnesota History Center, the Foundation hosted an orientation meeting at the conference site. Nan Peterson of The Blake School, located in Minneapolis, MN, and Leif Erickson of Youth Community Service, based in Palo Alto, CA, attended our orientation as SEF’s Senior Shinnyo Fellows. As they have in the past, Nan and Leif guided, motivated, and inspired the youth by sharing their personal and professional stories about what service-learning meant to them. Amy Meuers, CEO of NYLC, also stopped by during the Foundation orientation and shared with the Foundation participants what she was excited about for this year’s conference.

Day 1 of the conference was filled with workshops. As the Foundation sponsored group, the seven Shinnyo-en participants attended a workshop presented by Joseph Bush from Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, IL. Joe’s workshop focused on sharing various leadership skills and experiences that his students were acquiring and that he was implementing in his senior elective course titled, “Leading Through Service.” Some of his students helped the elderly in their neighborhood by mowing their front lawns and raking leaves. Others made no-sew fleece blankets for people in need of warmth and comfort. Joe also sprinkled in some fun activities throughout his workshop.

Joe is no stranger to the Foundation. He is a certified leadership trainer, and has previously offered a workshop on leadership styles and skills during a YA leaders’ meeting at the Shinnyo-en USA Head Temple in Redwood City, CA.  In addition, he has been a vital collaborator with the Foundation to design, develop, and deliver the Infinite Paths to Peace (IPTP) Leadership Retreats for the YA members. Joe also attended the Foundation’s IPTP Leadership Retreat held for the Chicago Temple youth in April shortly after the National Service Learning Conference.

As a sponsored grantee, The Honeycomb Project, based in Chicago, IL, showcased their projects in the Exhibit Hall at the conference. Kristina Lowenstein and Breeze Fromm-Sarto, Executive Director and Program Coordinator of Honeycomb, respectively, and Chloe Shin and Mariya Mujahid, two long-time volunteers, also presented a workshop on “Creating High Impact Project Across Generations.” Since 2011, Honeycomb has partnered with local organizations to develop the very best multi-generational volunteer experiences. Almost every weekend throughout the year, Honeycomb brings families together to develop a deeper understanding of the City of Chicago’s unique needs and challenges, and build stronger communities for all Chicago residents.

Day 2 continued with more inspiring workshops. In particular, YCS’s workshop, “Youth Connection Saves Lives,” was moving to many of us. Leif Erickson introduced YCS to the roomful of attendees and explained the “collective impact” strategies to better address the many life challenges that the youth in underserved communities face. When challenges in a society affect the community on a large scale, it requires structured collective efforts to make substantial, sustainable impacts on the community.  Although underserved communities face structural and institutional challenges, both affluent and underserved communities may struggle with interpersonal and intrapersonal difficulties. Kathleen Blanchard, YCS Board Chair, explained why this was so important to her by sharing her personal story of losing her son. After Kathleen’s moving story, they introduced “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” activity with Sierra Kelliehan, a high school student leader for one of the YCS programs. This activity has been a part of the Foundation’s IPTP Leadership Retreats as an individual reflection activity for Shinnyo-en youth. However, this time, the YCS team asked attendees to work with their tablemates to identify an issue or challenge in their familiar community that they were passionate about addressing. At the end of the workshop, a representative from each table shared their illustrated representation of the issue or challenge with the rest of the room.

During a plenary session on Day 2, a Stellar Service-Learning Award was presented to Nan Peterson by Amy Meuers, CEO of NYLC, and Ineko Tsuchida, the Foundation’s Program Director. In presenting the award, Amy explained why Nan deserved to be recognized for her life-long work in service-learning: “As many of you know, Nan is a kind of the god-mother of service-learning in this region, hosting large service-learning community dinners at the school, and helping to convene an annual Plank Institute summer enrichment for teachers across the metro – all for free. In short, she works very hard to make sure that her independent school, Blake, is NOT an ivory tower.” Ineko added, “Senior Shinnyo Fellows are individuals who model a life of compassion and service, and lead others by their own examples of paths to peace at work and in daily life. They are leaders in the field of service and education. Nan’s insightful approach combining service-learning with peace-building exemplifies why she is one of our Senior Shinnyo Fellows… Nan is a true leader in service-learning who continues Stella Braudenbush’s legacy by equipping young people to lead and serve. She has inspired others to envision and strive for schools and communities that are equitable, peaceful, and just.” Nan was totally awe-stricken by this award presentation, as well as by the warm presence of her immediate family who surprised her in the audience.

The final day of the conference was a Day of Service, including reflection sessions. The Foundation has been a major supporter of the Day of Service for the last few years where it has grown to combine reflection sessions with off-site service projects. This year, over 150 participants signed up for one of the two service projects offered. One group spent a couple of hours at the conference site to engage in “pre-flection,” a reflective discussion before engaging in service, to share with others their service experiences and passion for service. After getting to know their service team members, this group left for a thrift shop in St. Paul to sort donated household items and clothing, and load large bags of non-donatable clothing into a truck. After a couple of hours of hard work, the participants relaxed by shopping at the thrift shop to buy reasonably priced items. The other group left for a wildlife preserve education center earlier in the morning, and helped to enhance the center by creating wooden easel stands and hanging nature photos that the participants themselves took in the neighborhood of the center. The participants wrote some quotes or reflections that were inspired by the nature photos and hung them with the photos. They also learned about teamwork and how emergency responders handle natural disaster cases.

After returning to the conference site, all of the participants were asked to reflect on their service experiences and specifically connect them to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the period 2015-2030. For example, some of them who went to serve at the thrift store identified their work with the goal, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Others who worked at the wildlife preserve education center connected their experience with more environmental goals such as, “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Through the discussion about their service experiences, the Foundation sponsored participants felt a stronger connection to the conference theme, “JUSTICE IN ACTION.”

Later that afternoon, the Foundation sponsored a more intimate reflection meeting with the Shinnyo-en participants. Along with Nan Peterson, Julie Rogers Bascom and Maddy Wegner, District Service-Learning Coordinator of Edina Public Schools, Minneapolis, and Director of Engagement of NYLC, respectively, attended it as guest mentors. They first worked with one or two Shinnyo-en participants at a time to listen to the Shinnyo-en participants practice their presentations. Then, they coached them to make their speech more succinct and effective. After each of the Shinnyo-en participants’ presentations, they also asked questions and provided positive and constructive comments to them.

The reflections that the Shinnyo-en participants each shared was unique and thoughtful, ranging from feeling a stronger identification of their roots of service, to a clearer recognition of their challenges and successes, a firmer commitment to service, and to a new perspective in their lives. Below are just a few examples of their profound reflections:

“Upon reflection, as some of my main ‘roots’ of service, I might identify “respect for our differences” and “gratitude – to whom much is given, much is expected,” and I shall continue seeking to align and direct my energy from these roots towards growing the fruit of “listening carefully to others” and, “knowing my true self and being an advocate for others.”

“Sometimes we work so hard and are focused to get a certain result and when we don’t get what we were hoping for, it’s disappointing. But maybe in this disappointing result, there is something else to take away from it. We just have to be willing to open our hearts to figure it out.”

You don’t need to do anything on the grand scale. Just spread the joy in your own community.”

 “My experience at the National Service-Learning Conference was an important wake-up call for me. One of the biggest things I took away from this experience was the reminder that I am a part of something much greater than just myself.”

Every year, this intimate reflection meeting brings tears of joy and laughter as the Shinnyo-en participants share their genuine reflections openly. This year’s reflection meeting was no exception and it ended with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation among all who attended.

Please click this link to view the photos we took from the 26th Annual National Service-Learning Conference. In addition, this is the link for NYLC’s photo gallery. Please save your dates for the 30th Annual National Service-Learning Conference on April 23rd through 25th, 2019 in Washington D.C.!