Philip Koenig remembers being a sophomore at Christopher Columbus High School and beginning his journey as a leader in student government. Now – more than five years later – the junior majoring in international relations is a leader at Florida International University and the founder of Leading Miami – which teaches leadership training to middle schoolers around the county.
The organization, which he founded in 2009, has trained 80 mentors, who have worked with 1,000 students. It hosts five workshops throughout a 10-week period: self-realization, youth professional development, team management, social responsibility and igniting your passion.
Each of these sessions highlights a critical component to becoming a successful leader – outlining and assessing goals, learning strengths and weaknesses, dressing professionally, speaking effectively, networking, civic and community engagement, and learning how to cooperate with others. During the last workshop – igniting your passion – students create their own school and community projects.
“Self-realization is the foundation,” Koenig said. “It allows students to discover themselves. Everything else comes after. The students really open up. You’ll have students that are timid and after 10 weeks, it’s like a blossoming flower. You’ll see them becoming more engaging.”
Leading Miami is working with seven middle schools: W.R. Thomas, Ponce de Leon, Riviera, Ruben Dario, Howard A. Doolin, Glades and West Miami. Mentors, who host one-hour workshops two to three times a week, must be enrolled in high school or college and be between 15 and 25. They must also meet a certain GPA requirement, have a background check, and be able to dedicate 10 months of their time to the organization.
Natalia Cervoni, vice president of operations for Leading Miami, believes that promoting leadership is imperative because students need to succeed as leaders in today’s “ever-changing world.” The senior at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove, who started off as a mentor, says the experience is both exciting and worthwhile.
“Leadership skills can always be further developed,’’ she said. “Even the best leaders should strive to continue developing their skills.”
Lindsey Mendelson, a senior at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, and Ali Oshinsky, a junior at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, co-founded Kids Corp – an organization that assists elementary schools in impoverished areas with supplies and projects. It is affiliated with Teach For America.
Lindsey and Ali have similar stories. Both of their mothers volunteer with Teach For America and one day, they decided to join them. After their experiences, they had the same thought: How can I make a difference?
“There was one table of five kids that had to wait around for one eraser so if one person made a mistake, they all had to wait to use the same eraser and I was watching this thinking that this was a problem that was so easy to fix,” Oshinsky said.
Teach For America introduced the girls to one another, and since then, they have worked side-by-side creating and carrying out the mission of their organization, which they founded in 2010. To date, they’ve worked with about 700 elementary school students.
Kids Corp has set up a Google document where teachers can post projects they need for their classrooms – vocabulary flashcards, math flashcards, arts and crafts, and more.
The organization focuses on assisting three elementary schools: Lenora B. Smith Elementary, Holmes Elementary and Morningside K-8 Academy. To volunteer for the organization, students must get in touch with their Kids Corp representative at their school.
There are about 100 volunteers, who are mostly high school students from Ransom, Pine Crest, Palmetto Senior High School and Gulliver Schools. Some middle school students at Ransom have also begun volunteering for Kids Corp.
“The projects we do takes away the busy work that teachers usually have to do so they have the opportunity to better teach their students in the classroom,” said Lindsey. “A leader is someone who has the ability to influence people in positive ways, to help the community in any way possible, which is what we are trying to do, for sure. Make a difference in the community at large.”
Ali says that she hopes the students in the schools they help are getting the education they need to become the best they can be. “We want to lead people on the path where they can become their best selves.”