The National Leadership Conference roared back to life in summer 2022 after two years of virtual and abbreviated gatherings and brought with it a fresh outlook supported by a strong sense of community.
“We all look at NLC as such a place of hope,” said NLC Co-Director Erin O’Brien said. “We see that in the participants, and it reminds us there are things to be hopeful for. Future generations will make big positive changes.”
This year, NLC saw new leadership under O’Brien and fellow Co-Directors Michael Harter and Beth Wilson. The three American Youth Foundation staff members worked hard to prepare a transformational eight-day experience for teens and young adults – familiar territory, as each spent several years as NLC volunteer staff.
Wilson said these dedicated individuals are key to the program’s success. “Volunteers work their tails off,” said Wilson. “Not only that, but they also have such a positive energy that we couldn’t bring without them. When I leave, my heart is so full because the participants and the volunteers give their all.”
This year, approximately 75 volunteers dedicated countless hours to planning and executing this powerful week. When volunteers describe their experience with NLC, the concept of community inevitably creeps into the conversation. It’s the driving force that motivates them to come back year after year – in some cases for decades – to put on a life-changing program full of tradition and transformational moments.
Most people join the volunteer staff after they complete the NLC program themselves. That was the case for Shawn Herron, but unlike most volunteers, he returned in 2018, more than 30 years after he was a program participant.
“It felt like coming home,” he said. “I don’t remember the curriculum and I don’t remember a lot of the specifics from 30 years ago, but I remember the feeling and the sense of community. That’s the biggest part of the experience.”
Herron credits the passion NLC elicits to the connection, commitment, and shared values of staff and participants. Herron also enjoys being able to support high schoolers knowing the impact NLC had on his life.
Similarly, Isabella Pallotto’s experience as a participant stuck with her. Shortly after graduating NLC, she chose to volunteer and give back to the program that gave her so much.
“We just get to meet so many great high schoolers who are truly leaders in their community,” she said. “It’s so amazing, and I think when we go back into the real world where things like the political landscape can be so hard, we can feel a little helpless. Coming to NLC and seeing so many young people who are so excited and passionate … that’s really special and inspiring to witness every year.”
Pallotto said everybody who attends leaves with new friends, whether they’re returning or first-time participants. The group works to make everyone feel comfortable and included from the start.
O’Brien echoed that sentiment, noting that volunteers and participants feel like a family who provides unconditional support to everyone and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. She added that many volunteers choked up when they saw the participants walk into camp for the first time in two years.
“There are so many people who have volunteered longer than I have and who have given up that time in their lives,” she said. “That’s not an easy thing to do, to ask someone in the middle of summer to volunteer two whole weeks of their time. I think it really speaks to how much we love what we’re doing, how much we believe in youth empowerment and how much it brings us together.”
Wilson said one of the reasons she continues to give her all to NLC is because during every conference, the participants teach her something new about the world or herself. O’Brien said seeing and experiencing everyone’s personal growth keeps her motivated.
“It’s life changing,” she said. “I think every single person who has been a part of it can say that NLC has changed their lives in some way – whether it’s relationships or the things that they learned while they were there.”