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Heir Grooming : Week-Long Sessions Seek to Prepare County Youths for Leadership Roles

July 06, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

BIG BEAR LAKE — They piled on the buses in Orange County in the early morning, these 75 or so teen-agers glancing warily at each other, jockeying to sit with a friend, quieter than usual, wondering what they were getting into.

Four hours and 7,000 feet in altitude later, they were divided up into 10 groups, each named for an animal, and told to find other members of the group by wandering around the room and making the noise of the designated animal.

Amid the grunts, meows, barks and whinnies began the glimmerings of fun, and, somehow or other, the whole purpose of the outing: the nurturing of leadership.

By last Friday afternoon, when the week-long Leadership Development Center run by the Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross had ended, the teens' wariness was gone. In its place were friendships, trust, and--if all goes as planned--ideas to be used by the county's next generation of leaders.

At a time of ethical scandals in Washington that force high-ranking leaders of the House of Representatives to resign under fire; in a summer where a popular sports figure is accused of violating one of the fundamental rules of baseball (don't bet on baseball games), after years of talk of the "me generation" and 22-year-olds just wanting to be "junk bond" kings with six-figure annual salaries; after all that, there are still youngsters wanting to be leaders, willing to do something for someone else and to learn how to work with others to accomplish their goals.

For 10 years now the county Red Cross has been running these leadership seminars, off Ortega Highway the first year and in Big Bear Lake since then, packing off teens selected as potential leaders by their peers, schools, churches, and community groups for a week of intense discussions, talks by local business leaders, intellectual game-playing and occasional all-out teen-age fun.

"Leadership is not something you are," Thomas Parham, director of career planning and the placement center at UC Irvine, told the teens. "It's something you do. . . . Each of you can be a leader."

To make the process easier, the students are taken away from their usual surroundings and distractions and are bused up to the land of clean air, blue skies and nights flooded with stars. Sessions like the animal impersonations break down inhibitions and start the bonding process.

Red Cross officials say they don't necessarily try to pick the students who are about to become student body presidents, because those youngsters are already leaders. Better to choose someone a bit less obvious, they say, maybe a band member, a school newspaper writer, a spark plug in a cultural group.

Someone like Jasdeep Singh (Tony) Mann.

Born in India, 16-year-old Mann is a member of the Orange High School Cultural Action Team, a multi-ethnic group that seeks to defuse racial tensions by going into classrooms and telling students "what we feel as foreigners" about life in general and their America-born classmates in particular.

Mann is a Sikh, a member of a religion that among its other tenets forbids men to cut their hair. When he swam last week, his hair tumbled down his back. When he wore it up in a top-knot, it was covered by a white cloth. Most Sikh adults wear turbans in their everyday lives.

As a result of his appearance and background, "I'm a little different," the slender youth said. Normally, "I don't make friends that fast." But at the leadership conference, "in half an hour, everybody trusts each other. They're talking so openly you can't believe it. I don't think I'd talk like this anywhere else my whole life."

"I'm trying to be a leader," Mann said. "I know I have good ideas; I can get people together. . . . A leader has to be fair to all. You can't just say that 'I'm going to suggest something that everyone has to do.' (A leader) has to learn to compromise with all different people."

Singh's school paid the $75 cost for his attendance at the Big Bear conference and sent two other students as well. Other "delegates," as the teens are known, pay the $75 themselves. Red Cross officials say the actual cost is closer to $250 per attendee, with the organization subsidizing most of it.

Delegates don't have to have any connection with the Red Cross; after going through the course, the youngsters are invited to come back in future years as group leaders, which are volunteer, nonpaid positions.

Michael Starbuck was a delegate to the center in 1980, a youth staff member from 1981 through 1983, and is now a student at St. Louis University Medical School.

The conferences "allow you to grow within yourself," said Starbuck, who is now 26. "It's a place where you get to define what your values are and your goals. It's a place where you can interact with other people and realize we all have different opinions and that's OK, and accept it and still work together for a common goal."

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