Scaling the W.A.L.
Each summer forty young leaders from dozens of different high schools and communities are challenged to “Scale the W.A.L.”, sometimes unknowingly coerced like the young man from inner city Birmingham whose mother told him he was coming to a football camp. Nevertheless, what we like to call “magic” happens each summer at the Walsh Academy of Leadership. The W.A.L. is an initiative of the Greater Alabama Council and its partners began as a tribute honoring Dr. Kevin Walsh, our visionary leader who, along with the GAC, founded the Alabama Youth Leadership Development Program (YLDP). Our team believed if so many students had breakthroughs in their character and leadership development meeting just once a month in the YLDP, imagine the growth and opportunities for true learning during an intensive three day summer camp. Therefore, the W.A.L. was born and created using the same ideals of the YLDP; those of good moral character development, celebrating diversity and lots of thoughtful mentoring.
The students are selected based on maximizing diversity of demographics, socioeconomics, academic achievement, ethnicity and interests. About the only thing they have in common is that they are all in high school. However, this wonderful mixture of extreme differences creates the first W.A.L. hurdle and the one we believe is the most important to their development as an excellent leader. W.A.L students learn right away the one crucial need of leaders, the thing ALL leaders MUST have is followers and in order to keep those followers they must learn to interact and respect everyone. One might imagine the tension during their first lunch social, where they are divided into teams and tasked with creating a team chant and cheer. Thanks to our awesome volunteer camp counselors, most of whom are YLDP alumni, the ice is broken quickly and laughter and cheering ensues. Team names are shouted through the halls “Blue Bandits! Ninja Turtles!” and this camaraderie is key to bonding kids with little else they find in common.
Throughout the WAL, students continue to learn about leadership through teambuilding exercises like an Amazing Race and from notable speakers, including some of our founding fathers at the American Village. Students actually step back into history and live as Patriots during the fight for America’s freedom. After years of history classes, many finally connect with the sacrifices and importance of the foundation those Revolutionary leaders set. Another WAL is hurdled when students actually perform on stage, coached by American Village’s professionals to interpret history in their own way. Several of our students did so well they were offered jobs by the AV.
The final hurdle is one of self-reflection and public speaking, where each student gives their W.A.L. testimony to the collective group. Thoughts were echoed time and again that this was a unique and amazing experience unlike anything they had ever experienced. Many noted the countless leadership conferences they attended but had never been impacted so powerfully. Love and appreciation was shared, laughs rang out and tears were shed. Even Carl who had been “tricked” to come said “it was the best thing I have ever done” and asked me after graduation if he could return as a volunteer counselor. Yes, the magic happened again and it is the most profound experience I as a professional have had the privilege of witnessing. It is the human spirit at its best.
Below are some comments made on our 2014 W.A.L. survey.
Please describe your favorite part of the W.A.L. experience:
- “Everything!!I was not expecting to learn and love as much as I did”
- “The amazing and dedicated people we met”
- “I loved the relationships I built with my team and everyone here”
- “I got to know people and make life-long connections”
- “How we all felt comfortable around each other to express our true selves”
- “Amazing how we formed the bonds we did in three days”
- “American Village-I am a history nerd and a theater nerd and it was amazing!”
- “Amazing Race and how it challenged us to come together as a team”
- “I can honestly say there was not a time when I was not having a great time”
What is the biggest lesson you learned from the W.A.L.?
- “Leadership, courage and heart does not have preference of color, race or gender”
- “Leadership isn’t just being in charge with people following. It is working as a team to improve everyone as a whole”
- “Being a leader is about the relationships you make and being able to relate to the people you meet”
- “That we are more alike than not and be the leader you would want to have!”
- “How to work together and confidence and support are necessary for teamwork”
- “You need to be more open-minded- It leaves more room to have better experiences”
- “Be more eager to meet new people”
- “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like because you CAN come together as a team”
- “Leaders are often the ones learning and listening”
- “Being present in the moment and anyone can make an impact”
- “Opening oneself up isn’t the scary part. Staying closed is the scary part. As a leader you have to push past what scares you to be successful.