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Perspective | N.C. student ambassadors present at national conference on how to change the world one community at a time

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Recently, student ambassadors for School Meals for All NC were invited to present at the National Service Learning Conference (NSLC), which took place in St. Paul, Minnesota from April 3-6, 2024. The conference is a global convening for service learning, and this year, the theme was “from passion to action.” The students presented on how to change the world one community at a time.

Five students — Owen Alford, an ambassador from New Hanover County; Amiya Smith, an ambassador from Bertie County; Sofia Aponte, an ambassador from New Hanover County; and Amina Smallwood, an ambassador from Bertie Countie — and I started preparing for the conference on Feb. 24, 2024. We met weekly on Sundays to make sure the presentation was beautiful, wonderful, informational, and inspiring.

We were invited to present our lightning presentation for two days of the conference. A lighting presentation is about 20 minutes long — 10 minutes for the presentation and 10 minutes for questions. It happens in what is called a lightning round because you present the same presentation over and over again to others attending the conference. Our presentation was based on our work as School Meals For All NC ambassadors, such as hosting community events, engaging with elected officials, and social media advocacy.

ABC2 — which stands for “A Better Chance, A Better Community” — leads our work as ambassadors for School Meals for All NC.

Visiting St. Paul and Minneapolis

Before the conference started, we took a tour of the twin cities: St.Paul and Minneapolis. We visited the Mississippi River, the Grand Cathedral, the George Floyd Memorial, and the Minnehaha Falls.

The Youth Leadership Summit

The conference kicked off with a Youth Leadership Summit.

The Youth Leadership Council led the summit and started off with icebreakers, like comparing the mood you were in to squirrels or rabbits (very cool idea).

The summit transitioned into an activity about what we are passionate about, for instance I chose the environment. It included different tables, where you could write or draw or cut pictures out from magazines (my favorite). I cut out pictures of plants and trees as well as compost bins and recycling signs and wrote about why the environment is important and why I love it.

In the next activity, there were stations that helped us think about taking our leadership from passion to action, where we learned about decision-making and trust.

In the trust station, one person was blindfolded and was trying not to step on the brown paper laid in front of them, and another person was trying to tell them where to step so that they didn’t step on the brown paper.

For fun: After the conference concluded on the first day, we went to a wonderful Indian restaurant named India’s Palace, and afterwards, we went swimming in the indoor pool at the hotel.

Changing communities, changing the world

Before our lightning presentations started on day two of the conference, we networked with other organizations, meeting future friends and potential coworkers.

From 9-10:30 a.m., we were able to present our lightning presentation four times during this round. The first presentation started, and we didn’t even get to finish because those listening had great questions which turned into a great conversation.

That evening, we went to an awards ceremony that was very inspiring and compelling. We listened to everyone’s story to see if there was anything that we could implement in our own community or share with our friends back home.

For fun: In the youth room, we played games and danced with kids who shared a dance they had learned at the church where they live. We DoorDashed some food and went to the pool again. Late night, we watched March Madness on the TV in the hotel room.

The third day of the conference, we also presented our lighting presentation in a round.

We got up early to to set up our table, and we also had time to visit other tables to meet other organizations and see what they are doing in their community.

For fun: We went on our long-awaited trip to the Mall of America! We went to many different stores, such as Nike, Hot Topic, Crocs, 5 Below, Journeys, and Fashion Footwear. We even fit in time for Nickelodeon Land for a ride or two! It was amazing!

Service learning

The final day of the conferencce was a day of service at Urban Roots in St. Paul from 9am-2:30 p.m. Check them out, and please support them in any way you can. Trust me, you’ll feel amazing after!

We met up with our peers from other places joining us for the day of service. We got on our bus and started introducing ourselves and then did some exercises and stretches.

Once we arrived, we split up into groups.

Group one picked up trash and litter. Group two cut down buckthorn, an invasive species across North America. We had an opportunity to do both acts of service, even chopping down the HUGE buckthorn trees — they were humongous!

Overall, it was a great experience — 10/10, but only if you like animals. We saw snakes, beavers, and deer. 

For fun: We went to an escape room and then watched more March Madness. UConn should have won. That screen by UConn in the final moments was just a great screen. The refs wanted Caitlin Clark to win! The next day before returning home, we visited Prince’s home in Paisley Park, which was an incredible way to learn about Prince’s life.

We hope to implement what we learned from this inspirational trip in our communities.

Learn more about becoming an ambassador for School Meals for All NC.

Vishal Pannela

Vishal Pannela is an ambassador for School Meals for All NC. He is a student at Chaloner Middle School in the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District in Halifax County.