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ELITE Annual Retreat: Finding “The Real Me” By Julia Mondschean

 “What’s your name?” a booming voice called out the room of students.

The single voice belonged to Carl Cannon, founder of ELITE Youth Outreach Program, an initiative designed to teach District 150 students about respect and personal empowerment to set them on a course for success.

“ELITE, sir,” they answered in unison, not missing a beat.

The chorus of voices belonged to over 100 middle and high school students in the program from eight District 150 schools.

But on the morning of Friday, April 15, these students were not in their respective schools. Instead, the group, all wearing matching ELITE T-shirts, color coded for each school, sat in a room the size of a banquet hall and waited for their special day to begin.

It was the annual ELITE Retreat, a highly anticipated event in which the older students in the program are taken on a field trip where they focus on the lessons of ELITE in a new setting. This year the event was held at the Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center owned by Caterpillar, Inc.

This year’s retreat was called “The Real Me,” reflecting the social and emotional focus of the activities planned for the day.

After a hearty breakfast in the CAT cafeteria, the students reconvened for an icebreaker exercise designed to mix up the students from separate schools.Elite photo 1

Enter Chris Brown, an energetic presenter from WhyTry, a program that teaches students about life and character development to increase academic success.

Brown seized the chance and put them to the test. In just a minute or two, the students were transported to Hawaii by way of imagination, with help from a video clip of hot lava running down a volcano.

Huddled together in groups onstage, the students were given planks to cross the lava and rules to abide by. After ten minutes, most of the students on stage right had successfully traveled to the other side. The groups on stage left had not fared so well.

At Brown’s direction, everyone came together to sit on the floor (now just a floor) and reflect.

At first the students spoke of their teamwork and collaboration. The groups on the right half of the stage were proud of their efforts to combine the planks, making it easier for everyone to cross.

“Yet you let some other people struggle instead of possibly building a whole bridge across this thing so that everybody could have walked across,” Brown said. “You had a complete bridge right across this thing and nobody thought about it.”

During his next monologue, Brown’s role in the day’s events became clear.

“You can come with thousands of ideas. Guess what the world is going to do with your ideas? They’re going to reject them,” he said. “Guess how many times adults in this room have failed? More than they’ve ever succeeded.”

Brown was playing the role of the world, and to get through his lessons, the ELITE students would have to learn how to believe in themselves and each other as a community, as leaders, and as ELITE.

After Brown’s opening presentation, was the Caterpillar demonstration, a riveting show of the machines used around the world, known for their durability in vastly different conditions.

When I say ‘oh,’ you say ‘yeah,’” Cannon—both Carl and his brother Bill–calls out in baritone. “Oh…”

“Yeah!” the students respond.

Cannon calls it love.

“The whole purpose of today is to give them a stance about community,” he said. “It’s not about ‘I, me.’ It’s ‘we’ and all that good stuff.”

The ELITE Program has become an established community in itself over the years. Now in six high schools and two K-8 schools on a daily basis.

“We are saving lives, changing lives, making sure they understand they have a life,” said Cannon.

And it’s working. Cannon used to be a prison guard, until discovering he wanted to keep people out of cells, not in. During that career, Cannon, who goes by C.O. with the students to remind them of his past and the potential future they should avoid, participated in what is colloquially known as the “Scared Straight” program, which he likens to a hit and run.

To Cannon, the difference between those programs and ELITE is simple. “It’s relationships,” he said. “That’s the difference. We’re able to establish I am who I am, respect who I am, you are who you are I’ll respect who you are as long as you are trying to grow who you are.”

The rest of the day is spent in sessions designed by WhyTry organization to spur discussion and thinking about topics like reality and the consequences of choices, the individual empowerment necessary to get out of a bad situation, and the impact of labels.

After one of the “Peel Off The Labels” sessions, hosted by Taunya Jenkins, two female students, Sophomores from Quest and Manuel, spoke about the impact of ELITE on their lives. They mentioned learning about how to get jobs, how to respect people, and how ELITE has changed. their schools. Both students realize the impact Cannon has had on the program.

“He likes us having fun, but at the same time he wants us to realize that the world is rough out here and he wants us to just be prepared for it,” one student said. “It’s all about the kids in his eyes and that’s what I love about it.”

After the sessions are over, all of the ELITE students returned to the main room for one last presentation from Brown. It was an interactive game about strategy and learning from the experiences of those who have gone before you, and soon the students were all raising their hands, hoping to get a chance to try it. They tried to help those in the game and shouted tips to each other, even the girl who refused to speak into the microphone just a few hours earlier.

After Brown left, Cannon takes the stage to address ELITE at the close of their day. He ended with their signature pledge.

“How do you serve?” Cannon asked the group.

“With respect, sir,” they responded.

“How does respect work?” he asked

“It’s a two-way street from me to you from you to me.”

Cannon made a quick adjustment to the hand gestures accompanying the pledge and practiced it with the students until he was certain they had it just right.