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Rising to the Challenge

Casey Wells, Crown Journalism Club Editor

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Gabby Castro (11) has a lot on her plate. She is Vice President of Gavel Organization, is a Model United Nations delegate, is a member of both Spanish Honor Society and NHS, is a dancer, a pianist, and has been Class President of Student Council for the past three years. This Saturday, she completed her latest accomplishment.

Gabby was the director of the NHS Rise Up Leadership Conference, an annual event for all sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in McHenry County. The name is an acronym, which stands for Recognize and Inspire Students’ Excellence and Undiscovered Potential. Put plainly, Rise Up is meant to prepare middle schoolers for the challenges of administration by harnessing their leadership skills. The conference teaches kids about the fundamentals of leadership through presentations and activities with topics ranging from using teamwork to addressing bullying. As director of the conference, Ms. Castro had the challenge of organizing every little detail of the day and making sure everything ran smoothly. I sat down with Gabby a few days before the conference to discuss the upcoming event.

You attended Rise Up in middle school, is that correct?

Yes, for two years, in sixth grade and seventh grade.

What is it like organizing the conference you attended back then?

Really great! Going to Rise Up as a middle schooler was a catalyst to all my interests today. It had a lot of benefits, and attending was great for me. It’s like I’m carrying on a tradition; I get to catalyze other middle schoolers’ interest in leadership.

What expectations did you have for the conference in middle school, and what do you want it to achieve now?

In middle school, Marian was the high school I wanted to go to. “Why not? It’ll be fun, I guess,” was my attitude in sixth grade. In seventh grade, I realized, “This is great! I learned a lot, this really helped me.” Now that I’m running the conference, I want the kids to learn the same fundamentals of leadership that I learned, like character building, teamwork, all that good stuff. Every single kid has the potential to be a great leader. I want them to find the same love of leadership that I discovered, and I am honored to be the one running the conference that can get them there.

Like you said, the conference provides a lot of indispensable information. What do you think is the most important benefit Rise Up has to offer to middle school students?

How to be a leader. Everyone can be a leader, and if you learn how to do that, you can use it the rest of your life. There’s so much you can do with leadership, and we teach the core fundamentals of it.

How have past leadership positions helped you to run Rise Up?

From Student Council, especially, I learned the importance of delegation, communication, and teamwork. I’m the kind of person who wants to do everything myself, but the team must help, and Student Council taught me that in a big way. And organizing Eighth Grade/Freshmen Activity Night and Winter Formal taught me a lot about organizing an event for school and not cracking under pressure.

Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into planning an event like this. Like you said, there’s a lot of pressure. What kind of organizational structure did you set up to run everything?

We have a board of directors. There’s seven positions on the board, including myself. Each board member is in charge of a different aspect of Rise Up, like presentations or outreach or decorations. Dante Bucci is Co-Director, Sydney Leidig is Presentation Coordinator, Tori Johnson is Head of Teams, Stephanie Villaceran is Public Relations, Carolina Kirwan is Decorations Coordinator, and Vanessa Garrelts is Activities Coordinator.

How much of this style was set up from past years? Was there an existing structure, or did you design everything from scratch?

Lots came from past years. There were already to-do lists and a list of roles from past conferences, and all the past notes said choosing good and trustworthy team members was number one. You’ll think you have a plan, then realize more you have to do. That’s when it’s good to have lists and a team.

What qualities did you look for in choosing team members, and how was it choosing people you could trust to complete the arduous tasks inherent in running such a complex operation?

One qualification for the board members was that they be in NHS. Rise Up is an NHS event, so that was a requirement. Aside from that, what was most important to me was that the members were trustworthy and had the ability to meet their obligations. I couldn’t just choose close friends. I selected the board based on how I know them, how I know they work, and how I know I can trust them to fulfill our goals.

And what assistance did you receive from Dr. Pinnau, the NHS advisor, or past Rise Up leaders?

Lexi Daniello (12) and Claire Van Der Bosch (12) helped a lot. They stressed the importance of having a good board and checked in to remind me of what should be done, like checking in with middle school teachers, having the presentations ready, and making sure the food is going to be at the conference. Dr. Pinnau gave me advice. He answers questions when I ask them, but it was very clear from the beginning that I was running this conference, not him.

The theme for this year’s conference is superheroes. What made you choose this theme?

[laughs] I was watching the Avengers and I thought, “This would make a great LEAD Conference theme.”

LEAD*?

LEAD is an annual event mainly for student council and NHS members. High school students from all over the globe attend the conference. During the conference, different schools give presentations on different leadership topics. These range from the importance of teamwork and communication to simply ideas for planning an event. Earlier this year, a new addition to the conference was added, which was the LEADx Speaker. Ten students were selected to give a short presentation, like a TED talk, on leadership topics. I spoke about the different types of leadership.

*Leadership Experience and Development Conference

Okay, so you were thinking about your LEAD speech and considered superheroes, but tabled it then. What led to it being brought back for Rise Up?

We were brainstorming themes for Rise Up and I realized how popular superheroes are and how much you can do with the wide variety of characters. I ran it past the board, and we decided to go ahead with it.

With Rise Up so close, much of the ordeal of running it is past. What has been the most difficult part of the process?

Surprisingly, managing how I’m supposed to balance my schoolwork and the other things I’m a part of, especially Student Council. I’m someone who likes to have a plan, but I had to deal with changes and think on the fly. There were some things I had no control over, but I have a great board helping me out and a great Student Council taking care of things. I might have sacrificed a couple hours of sleep, but it was worth it.

Losing sleep is something all-too familiar for most high school students. How do you deal with stress?

Lots of coffee. Lots of chocolate. And of course, support from my board.

Just days away, how are you feeling about the conference? Do you feel like it will be a success?

I’m so excited! I cannot wait for the kids to come in and see what we have prepared. We’re in a time crunch, and we have lots to finish, but we have a great community of NHS and the board. I trust we’ll get it done.

The purpose of Rise Up is to instill the values of leadership into young people. As the director of the conference and an experienced leader yourself, what advice do you have for aspiring or struggling leaders, or future Rise Up organizers?

Future Rise Up directors, read my binder. Read the entire thing before you do anything. That was one mistake I made. I didn’t read the entirety of last year’s binder before planning. For anyone looking for leadership, the most important thing is to have confidence in yourself, which is hard. When you’re in charge, anything that goes wrong is on you. You have to adapt to change, rely on your team, and make sure you have great team members. They really are the key to the success of what you’re doing. And make sure, whatever it is you want to be in charge of, that you really, really want to do it. Passion is your driving force. If you don’t have passion, people are reluctant to follow you as a leader. And remember who you’re doing it for. This conference isn’t about me. It’s about the kids.

Passion is your driving force. If you don’t have passion, people are reluctant to follow you as a leader. And remember who you’re doing it for. This conference isn’t about me. It’s about the kids.”

— Gabby Castro

On November 12, 2016, Rise Up seemed to go perfectly according to plan. The attendees arrived and were led in groups by charismatic NHS members as they went from presentation to presentation. Some workshops were instructional, like “Finding the Hero in You” (character building) and “Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice” (critical thinking), and others were avocational, like “HERO: Helping Everyone Respect Others” (addressing bullying) and Honesty is the Strongest Policy (academic honesty). But all the demonstrations shared some kind of superhero theme and gave the kids candy for participating and answering questions. The students eventually headed to the gym for activities like Rescue Dodgeball and Bed Sheet Ping Pong and to the cafeteria for a lunch of Italian beef and mostaccioli. At the close of the day, a friendly competition between all the small groups was summative of everything they had learned. It was a Jeopardy-style game utilizing questions taken directly from the day’s presentations. Afterwards, each of the young superheroes was granted the chance to “save the day” by stopping a super-villain, the Joker. All day, the participants were enthusiastic and learned valuable skills to use in life.

I asked Gabby about her feelings after the conference. She was so grateful that the students had been so earnest to participate as well as excited and relieved that everything had gone so well. The success of the conference was due in no small part to her diligence as director and the efforts of her board. With her work done, Gabby was prepared to settle down for a much deserved break. That is, until her next leadership challenge comes around.

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