Learning How to Change the World

Learning How to Change the World

Civitan Conference teaches skills that will last a lifetime, sponsored by local clubs.

Students work together to play games and solve problems at the Civitan conference. Zack Holden leads the group here.

Students work together to play games and solve problems at the Civitan conference. Zack Holden leads the group here. Photo by Manuel Andrade


The Conference was in a bucolic camping area during the early January snowfall.

Ever wondered about the blue sign on North Quincy Street near the Washington-Lee High School in Arlington which says “I-66 Civitan Garage Sale”? There is a story behind that sign which was told, in part, by local high school students who attended a conference at the Piankatank Camp and Conference Center in Hartfield, Va. over the weekend of Jan. 6, and two of their mentors, Patricia Koepsel of McLean/Tysons and Brian “Pat” Robson of Richmond.

Why is the Middle East so complex? What makes a good leader? Am I a leader? Why is the U.S. Constitution so important? These were questions wrestled by young men and women from area high schools at the annual Civitan Leaders in Freedom Conference. The Arlington Civitan Club sent six students, at a cost of over two thousand dollars: Joseph Andres from Bishop O’Connell High School, Youssef T.C. Thomas from Yorktown High School, Alistar J. Watson from Wakefield High School, and Bethlhem Dumtie from Washington-Lee High School. The Tysons Civitan Club sent six more: Caroline Brunner from McLean High School, Fabian E. Gonzalez and Orah Cecile Smith from Oakton High School, Anusha Ashrat from Langley High School and Claire Julia Troy, Zachary Holden, Jong Eun Jung, Emily Ann Serviss, and Jackson Thomas from Madison High School. Those students made up almost half of the 39 students who attended the Conference, picked for having already demonstrated leadership skills in their schools or other organizations.

“We bring them in on Friday, on several smaller buses, from Northern Virginia, from Roanoke and Charlottesville, from out in the Tidewater area,” said Brian “Pat” Robson, who has led the conference for 18 years. “We get them all on one bigger bus. None of them have ever met each other, and when they get on the bus they don’t want to know each other - but then they start to warm up. Everyone gets to ride the bus for sixty miles, and at the end of that sixty miles they have had time to look at each other and ask themselves: ‘Do I want to know you?’ Two days later they are so busy hugging each other and saying goodbye we can’t get them back on the buses. They get together afterwards. Convene their own meetings. They establish a real camaraderie.”

Nationally renowned professors of political science and law moderated exercises at the conference to teach students how to apply the principles of the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as they role-play. Motivational speakers challenged everyone to embrace individual differences instead of allowing them to be platforms for division.

“I learned about how to make a positive difference in the world and made close friendships that will last a lifetime,” said Caroline Brunner of McLean High School. “I learned a lot through this great leadership experience,” said Will Wallace, from southwest Virginia. “I truly feel like my leadership skills were strengthened through a series of leadership and team building exercises along with world-class speakers from across the nation. This event has truly changed my life and I cannot wait to apply the skills I learned to help change the world.”

CIVITAN INTERNATIONAL was founded in 1921 in Birmingham, Ala. It is an association of community service clubs. The organization aims to build good citizenship by providing a volunteer organization of clubs dedicated to serving individual and community needs with an emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities. There are about 30,000 members (referred to as Civitans) in nearly 1,000 clubs around the world, located in 50 countries.

The conference is sponsored by the Chesapeake Division of the Civitan International. Robson said, “The theme is “Leaders in Freedom”; no political ideology is espoused, and we tell the speakers, ‘at the end we shouldn’t know whether you lean to the right or the left’ - just focus on topics near to Americans and our constitution. Derius Swinton - a principal of the SOAR group, and an amazing leadership trainer and great enthusiastic motivator, speaks first, then break them for dinner, then comes Tina Ramirez, the president of HARDWIRED, Inc. who talks about freedom of religion. The whole basis of her organization is to promote religious freedom on a worldwide basis, and she’s been in some of the most dangerous countries in the world doing that; she gets an hour.”

“Then Aaron Arnold, Junior Achievement of Hampton Roads, speaks on the free enterprise system, he’s from Colorado, almost like a tree hugger, and he relates well to this age group. Saturday morning, we were scheduled to have Andrew Meyer, constitutional attorney in private practice in Richmond, who has argued some significant cases, but he got snowed out. Normally the presenter takes one of several really thorny issues involving the Constitution and the kids are supposed to come out with a stronger understanding of how it works. You want them to understand that the politically correct answer is not always the constitutional answer, and the constitutional one will always win out.”

“Our last speaker is Aram Hessami, a professor at Montgomery College, he presents a session on the Middle East. He is stellar. Aram only works from a flip chart, keeps them mesmerized, and will answer any question you have about the Middle East; he immigrated here from Iran in 1979, and you don’t know where he stands but you have a really good understanding why the region is the way it is and what you can do to fix it,” Robson said.

What does CIvitan want out of the kids who attend the conference? “We hope those who aren’t already members of a Civitan Junior Club will start one or will join one when they become adults. Sure, it’s nice if they do something for CIvitan, but what we really want is for them to see things differently as a result. Of 30-45 kids who are at the conference, the light will really go on for about 4 or 5 of them. You will see an intellectual change. Those are the ones that are going to change the world, somehow. If they never do anything for Civitan, but as long they do something for our country, we’ve done what we set out to do.”

PAT ROBSON says this is his last conference. He doesn’t want something with an intellectual baseline like this to become stale. He’s confident it will continue as long as they don’t change the structure. After 24 years of service in the U.S. Navy, this was his way of keeping on doing something for his country, and the Civitans. Anyone interested in joining CIvitan or donating to its causes can visit the website: www.civitan.org.