Nearly 400 high school students from 13 countries gathered inside of Loyola’s Galvin Auditorium, cheering loudly as music blared — an atmosphere more akin to a pep rally than a service project. While these young volunteers may be from different corners of the world, they all have one thing in common: They’re all serious about service.
They spent a week on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus for the Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) World Leadership Congress, listening to presentations from entrepreneurs and leaders from around the world while learning the skills they need to do those kinds of work themselves for projects like this one.
“I’m always very excited to help out with HOBY because of all the wonderful opportunities, all the service we get to do and the amount of lives we get to impact throughout our communities,” said high school junior and Mesa, Arizona native Brandon Good, 15. “We’ve learned about things like taking initiative, confidence and, overall, just how to be a better leader and a better human being.”
The students learned both teamwork and leadership as they prepared 50,000 servings of red lentil jambalaya, assembly-line style. They huddled around long tables, hurriedly scooping rice and seasoning into pre-portioned bags before sealing and packing them into cardboard boxes. Each time a box was filled, they rang a bell to celebrate their success.
The pre-packaged meals will be sent to the Chicago Food Depository and distributed through the Chicago Public Schools summer programs. They will be given to children and their families who don’t have enough to eat, according to Jarrod Fucci, vice president of program operations at Feeding Children Everywhere, which provided the food and materials for the project.
Founded in 1958 by actor Hugh O’Brian to foster leadership and empowerment in children, HOBY now has programs in 19 countries. Last year, 10,000 students participated in HOBY seminars in the United States alone, according to HOBY CEO Javier La Fianza.
“Our fundamental belief is that leadership is not about power, position or title,” La Fianza said. It’s your actions that define you as a leader, and consequently it doesn’t matter whether you’re 15 or 50. It’s about, ‘Let’s find about what you’re passionate about and give you the tools and the difference to go out and make a difference in your school, in your community or wherever you might be.’”
The meals help put a dent in the hunger problem that’s widespread in Chicago. One in seven people in Cook County goes hungry, according to the Feeding America Map the Meal Gap study. Over 20 percent of Illinois children live in poverty, and more than 1.2 million receive free or reduced-cost lunches at school, according to the 2016 Illinois Commission to End Hunger.
“When kids go to school hungry, all they can think about is lunch,” Fucci said. “[If] kids are going to school hungry, they could be learning that one lesson that changes the trajectory of their life forever. And they’re being robbed of that because they don’t have access to not just food but healthy food.”
Fucci said while the students will never meet the recipients of their service, the act of working together to help out strangers in need would leave its mark on the volunteers. Many of the high schoolers said they would apply what they learned in their own communities.
“In China, a lot of people don’t really do a lot of volunteering,” said Rapunzel Wang, a 17-year-old rising senior from China. “They just dedicate their lives to themselves — it’s sort of self-centered. I think what I want to do is to go back to China and tell my experience and to try to make my influence through that.”
For some, however, this project and others like it are more than a learning experience; they’re a way of life.
“I enjoy volunteering a lot. It’s kind of therapeutic to me,” said 15-year-old Jamauri Bagby from Houston, TX. “Whenever I feel down or depressed, I love to volunteer.”