Jake and Jackie Long take a quick break from working to chat with President Clinton.
Shovels and rakes in hand,
On this day, though, the manual labor didn’t seem quite so hard or even much like labor at all. Surrounded by dozens of their newest friends, the Rams trio – along with Long’s wife Jackie - couldn’t help but take notice of the fact that were indeed a part of something special, something that goes well beyond simple gardening work.
As he moved bags of mulch and dug up more weeds, Quinn couldn’t help but notice the many varied accents of the kids working with him. Students from Israel, the Sudan and other places only seen in the further reaches of a globe had converged here in St. Louis to take part in the annual Clinton Global Initiative University project for 2013.
Hosted by former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea, the Rams representatives were joined by 600 students from universities all over the world, students brought to St. Louis not for their own personal gain but for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, others whom they had no previous knowledge of or affiliation with.
It didn’t take long to dawn on Quinn, Long and Givens that they were a part of a service project that was entirely selfless. To be sure, it was in many ways an overwhelming opportunity.
“To me (this) just makes me that much more grateful for the things I have in my life,” Givens said. “And just to be around all these kids from different parts of the world it shows you that if we can all come together about one thing that’s important, something great can be achieved regardless of where you are from.”
President Clinton launched the C.G.I.U. project in 2007 with the hope of engaging young people with leadership aspirations from colleges and universities all over the world. The participants are asked to develop a “Commitment to Action” which calls for a new, specific, and measurable plan that addresses a challenge on their campus, in their local community, or around the world.
That commitment to action is centered on one of the five focus areas of the C.G.I.U.: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.
Since the inaugural meeting in 2008, the C.G.I.U. has brought together more than 4,500 students from more than 750 schools in more than 130 countries. This year’s event brought more than 1,000 students representing more than 300 universities and 75 countries to St. Louis, 600 of whom stayed to participate in Sunday’s service project.
This year marked the group’s first trip to St. Louis, a trip spurred by the successful bid of Dr. Beth Bender and the staff at Gateway STEM High.
Back in September, Dr. Bender was contacted about applying for the service project portion of the annual meeting coming to St. Louis. During the weekend, the attendees went to Washington University for plenary sessions, working sessions and other special events that provide participants with a wide variety of knowledge-sharing and networking opportunities.
The service day is used to cap off the weekend and provide some immediate help for a school or area in need in many of the focus areas of the C.G.I.U.
After going through the application process, Dr. Bender and Gateway became one of three finalists before being selected for the project by President Clinton himself.
“It has just been an amazing experience,” Dr. Bender said. “To bring attention to our students and our school but also the emotional impact for our kids to know they are important. Those of us in urban areas who often do with less, to have President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton come to our school and CGIU to provide us with all of these volunteers; that’s huge. It’s very important and it boosts students up.”
Sunday’s activities kicked off with a quick speech from Chelsea Clinton, who called this year’s event the most “participatory” in the initiative’s history and emphasized the importance of leaving something meaningful behind for places that have been generous.
Dr. Bender followed with a series of thank yous to the events many sponsors and participants, including the Rams, and made it a point to show that she believes her school is one that is on its way up with improved attendance and test scores and the upward trajectory of its accreditation status. She then introduced President Clinton.
Upon walking on stage to a standing ovation, President Clinton delivered a powerful message about the importance of providing real, tangible opportunities for those who may not normally get one. He discussed the importance of STEM education, which puts a focus on training for specific careers, careers that may currently have less people for the workforce than available jobs such as the computer sciences.
“This is the promise of America,” Clinton said. “It’s all embodied by this great school, its principal and the wonderful staff here.”
Before leaving the stage, President Clinton received a surprise from Givens, Long and Quinn. The trio walked out and presented him with a personalized No. 42 Rams jersey with the name Clinton sewed on the back.
Each Ram took a turn on the microphone and delivered a positive message to the assembled students.
“I just said to have fun out here trying to make a difference,” Givens said. “It’s easier to make a difference when you are having fun and enjoying what you are doing.”
After the pep rally, Chelsea and Bill Clinton met with the Rams contingent backstage and chatted for a bit, mostly about sports.
“It was really cool meeting a former President and being able to talk with him and shake his hand and get a picture with him and just hang out with him for a little bit was a tremendous honor,” Long said. “I was just looking at him and you realize the things that he’s seen, that he’s done, the places he’s been not only when he was President but even now as a former President. All the things he’s experienced, it’s really cool to be able to sit and talk with him for a couple minutes.”
From there, the students and the Rams got to work on making the improvements to the school. Projects included the installation of solar panels, landscaping, planting vegetable gardens, new carpet in the auditorium and many more that Dr. Bender estimated coming out to a value of nearly $250,000 in improvements.
Having the Rams involved at Gateway for the second time in less than a year – they installed a new football field and athletic facility last August with the help of the Rams and PHL, Inc. – again had Dr. Bender thankful for the relationship the school has forged with the team.
“I didn’t realize they were coming until a week or two ago,” Dr. Bender said. “So that was just another perk. It’s like Christmas day and you keep opening up another present. We find out that not only the President is coming but Chelsea is coming then the Rams are coming and then this is being donated. We are so lucky. We love the Rams.”
Of course, the students and staff at Gateway weren’t the only ones walking away with that lucky feeling.
Aside from the honor of meeting President Clinton; Long, Quinn and Givens came away feeling like they’d learned plenty from the students they spent their day working alongside.
Take the story of Adi Hanuka, for example. Six years ago, Hanuka began working with autistic children in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. She began thinking of ideas for how to help autistic children and had worked exclusively with a young autistic boy for the past three years.
In search of ways to network and meet people who could help her ideas come to life, Hanuka received a message about C.G.I.U. on the final day of submissions. She quickly pieced together an application, called her mother Yael and before she knew it the two of them were on their way to the midwestern United States for the first time in their lives.
Upon arrival at this year’s conference and the chance to meet so many like-minded young people, Hanuka, who attends Technion-Israel Institute of Technology - realized she was exactly where she needed to be.
“I think it’s amazing,” Hanuka said. “It’s really amazing to see so many young people who are very ambitious, very passionate about their commitment. When you say that every person can change something in their small surrounding then the world can be a better place and these wonderful people here are doing that. If everyone would make a change and just help a neighbor or a friend then the world would be better.”
The beauty of C.G.I.U. is that stories like Hanuka’s weren’t rare or hard to find among the students assembled for the service day. Walking back to the parking lot, Quinn was approached by a young man from Sudan named William Deng.
Deng asked Quinn for a picture and the two discussed sports for a brief moment. Deng attends Northern State University in South Dakota where he is working on getting his degree while still maintaining a foundation he started to help children back home in war-torn Sudan. He’s 26 years old.
It was a quick interaction, one that could easily be overlooked but one that Quinn won’t soon forget.
“It definitely shows how much people care about giving back and helping others,” Quinn said. “They are just regular people living a regular life and this is what they love to do. For us to step back and take a look at things through their eyes and help out in communities is really a humbling experience.”
For more information on the Clinton Global Initiative University, visit cgiu.org