Students learn to lead by serving

A leader is someone who can make a difference in the community.

Such is the principle on which the Teton Mountain Student Leadership Institute of Ricks College in Rexburg is based.Through community service opportunities, the institute helps students realize they can make a difference and can develop leadership abilities - regardless of previous experience.

Brian C. Schmidt, the institute's director, said: "Our idea is that you can become a leader if you get involved. You don't have to be the head of a corporation; you don't have to be president of a college."

Gerald Price, assistant vice president of Student Life, which oversees the institute, explained: "The goal of the Teton Mountain Student Leadership Institute is to build a student's self-esteem, provide the opportunity to discover the value of giving service to others, develop and reinforce the work ethic, and provide meaningful leadership training.

"However," he continued, "our view of leadership differs somewhat from the rest of the world. We see leadership as a way for anyone to make a positive difference in the world. It is not an exclusive quality that only a few can possess or experience. It is something that all can develop and enjoy."

This point is illustrated in the account of a young man involved in the institute. Brother Schmidt recalled that students were hosting a carnival for children at a domestic violence shelter in nearby Idaho Falls. The young man, a freshman, was responsible for the game of musical chairs. The student brought his portable stereo and the music to "The Little Mermaid."

"He was so funny and so cute with these kids. They just loved him instantly and were hugging him," Brother Schmidt related. "It was the neatest thing to see him kind of come out of himself. At the end of the event, he asked the director of the center, `Can I come back?' I think the project really made a difference in his life."

Students at the college can have experiences like these by participating in one or more of several programs sponsored by the institute. These programs include campus service clubs and non-credit leadership training classes. However, the principles of the institute are mainly implemented through programs called Zion's Camp and the Service Station.

The Service Station is a referral center where community service needs are posted for campus and college Church groups, such as family home evening groups, and those participating in the leadership institute.

Zion's Camp includes an overnight retreat and a service project. There are up to five such camps per semester during the regular school year, and they occur at Bennion Boys' Ranch, some 60 mile east of Rexburg.

The owners of the ranch, which includes a rustic lodge, allow the college use of the facilities during the winter months. During the summer, the ranch is the site for summer boys' programs. The ranch was founded by Lowell L. Bennion. His son, Steven D. Bennion, is president of Ricks College.

Brother Schmidt explained that the term "Zion's Camp" was derived from its namesake in Church history. In 1834 a group of saints, led by Joseph Smith, went from Kirtland, Ohio, to Jackson County, Mo., to assist members there who had been driven from their homes. The camp was disbanded in Missouri with inconclusive results, but many early Church leaders had experiences of leadership through Zion's Camp.

The Ricks College Zion's Camp is based upon the principle of "learning by doing," Brother Schmidt related. "Zion's Camp is to give students an initial experience with service. We give them the training, and we talk about becoming a member of a team and the responsibility they need to take."

A Zion's Camp service project begins by a designated student director going to the Service Station and picking a community project, which must be within about a 60-mile radius of the campus. Then an average of 15-20 students attend the overnight retreat at the Bennion lodge, where they participate in leadership seminars and plan the service project. About two weeks later, they implement the project.

Each Zion's Camp is focused on a theme - such as serving the elderly - and the service project reflects this theme, Brother Schmidt said. Some of the projects in the past have included delivering fruit to the elderly, cleaning trash from parks and highways, helping at school carnivals and helping the Forest Service.

Service is the key to helping students realize they can make a difference, continued Brother Schmidt. "Service builds their self-esteem. I can't think of a better way to build someone's self-esteem than through letting them go serve someone else."

He added that he hopes students will want to continue this service throughout their lives. "I hope they'll be able to become leaders in their communities, who care about the needs there and care about making a difference."

Students involved with the leadership institute seem to be learning these principles. Stephanie Stanger, 20, who graduated from Ricks in April, served as Service Station student director during the 1992-93 school year. She told the Church News that her experiences helped her realize "how much there is to be done in serving the community and how willing people are to help if they can be pointed in the right direction.

"In the future, I would like to have a place like the Service Station to go to and be able to find out service needs in the community. I just want to keep that desire to serve. And I want my children to have the same attitude and desire to serve."

In addition to benefiting students, the service projects sponsored by the leadership institute build positive relationships between the college and surrounding communities, Brother Schmidt explained. He related how a service project for a recent Zion's Camp fell through at the last minute. The students contacted the Service Station and discovered that a PTA leader in nearby Sugar City, Idaho, needed plastic containers to be decorated for a fund-raiser at the local elementary school.

"We did the project in three hours," he recalled. "The PTA leader was just ecstatic. She said, `This would have taken me weeks to do.' "

Brother Schmidt said the institute is only three years old, and the Zion's Camp and Service Station programs are only in their first year. As a result, community use of the services has been slow, but is steadily increasing.

To further inform the public about the institute's services, he said he hopes to set up an advisory board of community leaders. In addition, he plans to offer presentations to chambers of commerce, city councils and local hospitals.

"It's a lot of work," he said.

But his enthusiasm for the institute shows that he thinks it's well worth the effort.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed