Union County students rave about UC STEP program

image001UNION COUNTY – As Anna O’Brian stepped off of the bus onto the grounds of Kean University, the teenager was not too enthused with the prospect of spending her day there.

But after spending her day bonding and working together with students from the far reaches of Union County she raved about her enriching experience at the UC STEP Program.

“When I thought about the day I was missing at my school, I wasn’t really looking forward to it,” said the Westfield High School student. “But the activities have been amazing. I’ve done things I’ve never done before.”

Anna, along with 192 other Union County high school sophomores and juniors, was selected by her school to participate in UC STEP — a unique program promoting positive youth development through focusing on topics like leadership, personal growth, and more importantly, civic engagement.

“Civic engagement through service and community activities not only inspires youth to become active participants in society, it also fosters empathy and makes students more aware of the issues that plague their greater community,” said Union County Freeholder Chairman Linda Carter.

Hosted by Kean University, the half-day program featured discussion sessions, including “You Be the Judge,” which focused on crafting an effective elevator speech, and “How to be an Effective Leader,” which focused on identifying the diversity, concerns, and values of individuals.

The most popular session was “Civic Engagement,” which brought all of the UC STEP participants together to create, plan, and propose social action projects — the best of which would be chosen by popular vote and executed by the Freeholders with the students.

As part of the competition, the students divided into 10 groups containing students from different schools. Using a set of facts about Union County, and minimal guidelines, each group was instructed to envision a project that would be realistic and replicable in other schools, recognizing the diversity of the County’s demographics.

The result was something amazing, according to Amy Wagner, Bureau Chief of Union County’s Bureau of Government Relations and Community Outreach, who served as planning team leader for the program.

“The students in each group, despite not knowing each other, really embraced the idea of the civic engagement project. It was wonderful to see them working collaboratively and talking about themes like giving, homelessness and mentorship,” Wagner said.

Benjamin Freedman, a student at the Academy for Information Technology talked about his group’s service project — Bringing Holiday Spirit to the Elderly.

“The people that have given us hope, deserve some hope back,” he said.

After the presentation portion of the session, the students voted on their favorite projects. The top four projects were:

· 4 Seasons of Service: a project that involves different community service projects based on the seasons of the year.

· Bands for Benefit: a project that involves organizing a large-scale concert whose proceeds would benefit Union County’s Homeless.

· Lending a Hand: which involves Union County high school students serving as tutors and mentors for children in county shelters.

· Support 4 Soldiers: a project that would support a coordinated drive to collect items to be used in care packages for active military troops.

The projects are now open to a larger, community-wide vote to determine the contender which will be announced at Union County’s Reorganizational Meeting on Jan. 5.

For more information about UC STEP or to vote for your favorite service project, visit www.ucnj.org/uc-step. Voting is open until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 30.