DECATUR - Morgan Love lay on the ground, arms crossed over her chest, while her teammates surrounded her and slipped their hands under her body.
"OK," she said with a nervous laugh, "lift."
The other teens carefully lifted her, shifting their hold as necessary, until they were holding her in the air above their heads. Morgan, a junior at Clinton High School, tried to simultaneously keep her body rigid and relax, trusting them to not drop her.
The Youth Leadership Institute held its first activity of the year Saturday at the trust course at Rock Springs Conservation Area. Instructors from the Professional Development Network led activities, coaching the teens through each exercise and explaining what each was meant to teach.
"Communication is one of the most meaningless words in the English language," said instructor Mark Sturgell. "It's how we communicate that works or doesn't work."
Saturday's activity, he said, teaches the teens in one morning what they might spend months or years learning otherwise: teamwork, good communication skills and problem-solving.
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"Perceived physical risk is what this course is all about," Sturgell said, "and the reason they learn so much in such a short time about trust, leadership, communication and all the different elements of leadership. Most people have a very shallow, superficial understanding of what leadership really looks like, and they can experience all of that."
Sturgell said he doesn't talk a lot about what they should be learning; the students learn it through the experience and then take it into their lives and apply it.
Anthony Bond, a junior at Eisenhower High School, said Youth Leadership Institute will help him learn to cooperate with others and work together to achieve a goal. The trust course activities, he added, are a good way to begin.
"I thought it would help me be a better person," he said. "You get to know people, and it teaches you to trust other people."
Alexis Econie, from Warrensburg-Latham High School, said the application process was thorough. Students had to list their activities and name the qualities they possess which make them leaders.
"I'm real excited about (participating)," she said. "I think it's going to be really fun because there are a lot of good people here to work with."
Sponsored by Partners in Education, the Youth Leadership Institute is designed for high school juniors, who are recommended by their teachers during their sophomore year. The students apply and are chosen based only on their applications.
This year's group consists of 33 teens from 13 schools, said Renee Stivers, executive director of Partners. They'll meet monthly for a variety of activities, all meant to teach new leadership skills and reinforce the ones they already have, while providing career exploration and preparation for college.
Students will learn about various elements of the community: government, health care, social service and education. The idea is to take the first step toward adult responsibility as a member of the community, she said.
"This is a fun way to bring them together for the first time to break the ice," Stivers said. "They're not going to know a lot of the (other) kids. It kind of gives a kick start to the rest of the program."