Happy New Year and welcome to 2013. It is always a special time of the year for many of us as we reflect on the happenings of the previous year and start making plans for the upcoming year. Reviewing the past will help create the future.
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” Margaret J. Wheatley
The Lao Youth Leaders experienced a significant shift last year. We moved away from the concept of “the more is better” to “the less is better.” Coming into 2012 we had experienced a great surge of interest from parents and the community wanting their children to become involved and affiliated with our programs. This demand affirmed our significance and impact on the development of the youth. We were very proud that we were able to provide tangible success. This gave us the confidence that we could expand our program to more students. It made a lot of sense. Our mission was to help as many youths as possible. This is what we strived to do and we received the blessings and the trust from the community to do so.
As I look back, I am sad to express that our ambitions and intentions to help more youths did not hit the mark we wanted to set. The major challenge was the lack of resources, funding and volunteer time. When we were highly functional before 2012, we had bi-weekly classroom sessions which allowed us to teach and discuss the concepts of leaderships. The classroom sessions also conveniently provided the time and space for the youth to plan, create and execute projects and programs. We had efficiency of scale and were able to produce the outcomes we intended. We felt we were ready to take the program to the next level.
From here, we discovered our short-comings. I always knew the program relied heavily on my time. To balance my time commitments and to set a process for the future, I decided that I would allow more autonomy for the youth leaders to lead and manage themselves. I believed that the youth needed the opportunity to be challenged further. We decided to allow the youth leaders to lead and manage their own initiatives, handling a majority of program and funding needs. What better way to teach the youth the true concept of leadership than by allowing them the authority to make their own decisions? It was a concept that would balance my time commitments and challenge the youth to another level.
We applied this concept for 2012. What we learned and achieved will now transform the Lao Youth Leaders once again for 2013. Before I get into the plans for the immediate future and perhaps the long term future, I want to share some highlights from 2012 that we are all very proud of.
- We partnered with the Asian American Institute of Chicago (AAI) formally in January 2012 to produce a civic engagement program for our community. As a result, we were able to provide several student leaders the opportunity to participate in leadership summits sponsored by AAI. This added tremendous value to the program by giving our youth a greater exposure to a greater cause and providing a solid leadership development platform. Prior to this partnership, all of our leadership programs centered in our community. Now we were able to broaden our scope and network.
- We continued the tradition of producing the Lao Youth Leaders’ Lao New Year Party, entertaining and educating about 100 people on the traditional Lao New Year Celebration. It was great to see the youth work hard to keep the tradition alive. We saw new leaders emerge as they took the stage and oversaw the presentation of the program.
- The youth participated in the LAOE’s Civic Engagement Program by volunteering to help the community raise the awareness of the importance of voting, assisting in a voter registration movement, and culminating in a Get Out the Vote campaign. The youth played a vital role in the success of LAOE especially at the Get Out the Vote campaign where 30 high school students volunteered to get the community to participate in an early voting campaign. All in all, LAOE was able to register over 600 voters and achieved over 150 early voters.
- One of the major goals of LAOE in 2012 was to increase their outreach to the Elgin community. The objective was to raise the awareness of the Lao culture to others who might or might not know about it. Thanks to the efforts of the youth leaders, we were able to promote our culture with a traditional dance performance at the Northwest Communities 4th of July Celebration held in Hoffman Estates and the Elgin International Festival.
- Thanks to the Law Offices of Fichera & Miller, we were able to award $6,500 worth of scholarships to 13 deserving student. We are proud of our community’s academic success and will continue to celebrate and support it. Over the last two years, we have awarded over $15,000 in scholarships. This is a tangible achievement that will help further our youths’ academic successes. At the award ceremony, we announced another proud accomplishment. Our youth achieved an average score of 26 on the ACT, beating the district average of 20 and state average of 21, respectively. This quantitative score signified the strength in our programs and the dedication to academic performance of our youth. I was extremely proud to share this wonderful fact.
- Thida Vongvilay became the first Lao Youth Leader’s Impacts Fellows member after completing the AAI Impacts Fellow Program, concentrating on developing student leaders through advocacy work. This program gave us another great leadership programs to assist the youth in their academic and professional career. Through the program, Thida was given the tools and training to successfully lead our community on the Get Out the Vote Program. Additionally, it gave Thida a new perspective on the importance of leadership and how to utilize leadership. We are very proud to have made this possible.
- Like the Lao Youth Leader’s New Year Celebration, we continued the traditions of the annual family picnic and the Thanksgiving celebration. The annual family picnic has always served as an event where families can come together at the end of the summer and have fun with food and games. The Thanksgiving celebration this year was a very special one for the program and specifically, for me. As I expressed my new life plans to the team and the inability to be directing the program physically on a day to day basis, the youth leaders decided to pay tribute to my service and send me a bon voyage celebration. They produced a heart-warming book highlighting the program’s previous five years under my leadership. It made me cry. At that very moment, I knew how special this group is. They have a heart of gold and understand the depth of compassion and gratitude. They were truly leaders I look up to.
- Like many of the events LAOE produced year-in and year-out, there has always been major contributions by the Lao Youth Leaders. This was evident again when LAOE hosted their annual Lao New Year party to celebrate the accomplishments of the previous year while toasting to new beginnings. The Lao Youth Leaders produces the awards that were given to recipients for their volunteer work. For the first time, the Lao Youth Leaders were recognized for their contributions. Rachel Vongvilay, Wanda Sihananh, Nora Kedthy, Kathy Kedthy and Kaylin Ramangkoun were recognized for their volunteer efforts and assisting in many of LAOE’s successes. Thida Vongvilay was awarded LAOE 2012 Student of the Year for her dedication and contribution to the success of the Lao community. The recognition of the youth at this event was significant because it helps bridge the elders and youth to make for a stronger community. One cannot value enough the leadership of the youth and praise LAOE for recognizing the talented youth.
I can go on and on sharing specific stories of how each youth member has grown and how proud I am of each and every one of them. It is truly a great cause for celebration and it will always remain a motivation point for me to keep working for the youth. They have truly demonstrated their leadership and our community is finally recognizing it. We are better because of them. We should always be grateful as they are inspirations that bond us all.
Going forward to 2013 and back to my previous “the more is better” change to “the less is better” mindset, I learned that without the proper resources and processes, we will not be able to build the scale of efficiency to help more students. At our peak, we were working with about 60-70 students. It was a great feeling to see so many youths.
Last year taught us that we cannot sustain a program for that amount of youth. It saddens us tremendously. What we did learn was that we can still be very successfully at helping a select few, the ones that want the best out of the program and the ones that are committed to learning about leadership. We have an infrastructure that will support a few committed youths through a managed program that includes mentoring, program management, skills development, and leadership training and development. We have seen a few students excel in this format where they are partnered closely with the LAOE board, working together to achieve common goals. One can think of it as similar to an internship. We will provide practical experience and on-going coaching and support to ensure the youths are developing their leadership skills.
With the partnership of AAI, we have concrete leadership programs that will elevate our youth’s knowledge and development at a broader scale. Another benefit of the AAI partnership is our ability to reward deserving students a monetary stipend. Last year, our Impact Fellows member was awarded $1,000 for her graduation from the program. Additionally, we have decided to provide a separate scholarship fund for those who are actively participating in the Lao Youth Leaders program. This coincides with the general scholarship award given by LAOE.
My program goals for 2013 are as follows:
- Recruit more volunteers to create programs for all age groups. Even though I am shifting my time and energy on the senior youth leaders, I don’t want to abandon the younger youth leaders. In order for us to achieve this, more help from the community will be needed.
- Raise $5,000 for the Lao Youth Leaders scholarship fund. This fund will directly reward students that are members and actively participate in the Lao Youth Leaders program.
- Create a fundraising process soliciting generous contributions and donations for programs.
- Establish the Lao Youth Leaders Learning Center with access to computers and other technology resources. I would like to a space for the youth to grow their academic and social skills. Having a learning center will help us get back to the basics of the program which includes tutoring and classroom sessions.
- Lay the foundation for the collegiate chapter of the Lao Youth Leaders.
- Lay the foundation for a regional Lao Youth Leaders’ Summit, hosting leaders of other communities to discuss strategies on building a stronger Lao community through the leadership of the youth.
- I would like to provide more access to leadership or extracurricular programs for the youth. I would like to be able to sponsor youths in areas of interests such as space camp, leadership camps and similar programs.
- Lay the foundation for a group field trip to Washington D.C. Many parents have expressed this as an interest and I would like to start working on it this year.
- Build a process where I can lead the organization remotely. I would like have a system where everyone is accountable and contributes to the success. I would like to do more outreach to other organizations and people who would like to be contributors to our success.
- Start the process to register the Lao Youth Leaders as an official non-profit organization.
- Develop the next batch of leaders ensuring a successful succession plan for the future growth of the organization. I am personally looking to mentor at three youths and work with them throughout the year.
In closing, I would like to thank the many supporters we have. Without you, our dream would not be achieved. I hope you can join the cause and contribute your time and energy. Let’s continue to build upon our dream and develop our youth to be the leaders today and tomorrow.
Happy New Year!
Founder & Director, Lao Youth Leaders