Inspire, imagine, innovate: that was the idea behind the 2008 Bellevue Youth Involvement Conference at Meydenbauer Center. With guests Dr. Matt Bellace, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, and 13-year-old founder of the charity foundation, Hoops of Hope, the conference brought more than 450 students, the highest attendance ever, together to discuss ways to get involved in the community in Bellevue.
The conference, hosted by Youth Link and the city of Bellevue, has taken place every two years since 1990.
“We want teens to develop leadership skills and a voice in the community,” said Youth Link member Osbaldo Hernandez.
With attendees representing nearly all of Bellevue’s middle and high schools, the conference gave students a day off from school and an opportunity to learn about strong, healthy habits and make their voices heard in the community of Bellevue.
Dr. Matt Bellace – Dr. Matt, as he encouraged students to call him – has a Ph. D in clinical neuropsychology from Drexel University and a stand-up comedy routine in New York City. His humor, combined with personal anecdotes and demonstrations involving students, kept the audience interested as he worked to “Help teens make great decisions in their lives through positive support.”
“If you want to be successful in today’s world,” Bellace said, “you need positive support, which is what today is all about.”
Bellace emphasized positive support to keep teens away from drugs, alcohol, and violence. A large part of his message revolved around the idea of “natural highs” instead of chemical highs.
“If you’re not going to use chemicals to get high, you need something natural,” Bellace said.
He emphasized this point by calling three students and one adult to the stage, telling them to reflect on activities they do that give them “natural highs.” He sent them out of the room to discuss their ideas among themselves.
Once they were out of the room and could no longer hear what was going on inside, Bellace turned to the crowd of students saying, “No matter how they answer my questions, I want you to picture their activity as kissing.” When they re-entered, Bellace asked a series of questions trying to figure out what their activities were. After each question, the crowd of students would erupt into laughter, leaving the four volunteers completely bewildered.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Bellace said. “Laughing – that is a natural high.”
Bellace encouraged students to stand up for what they believe, rather than simply blending into the crowd.
“Whenever someone takes a stand in our society, they expect resistance,” he added.
After Bellace’s program, students broke up into smaller groups and attended a series of three workshops to learn lessons on how to be successful by forming strong habits. These workshops included lessons dealing with money, health, and the job world, with Starbucks hosting a workshop teaching good interview skills.
After the workshops came lunch, at which Gregoire and several other guests, including state Reps. Ross Hunter and Fred Jarrett, along with members of the city council were introduced to the students by youth members of Youth Link.
After lunch, the governor congratulated the students in attendance. “We need more of you thinking what will be good for you and your friends so that we can help teens across the state.
“This conference is about how to make Bellevue, Washington state, the nation, and even the world a better place,” Gregoire said.
In her speech, Gregoire addressed issues such as the environment and education. “We as a state are taking a leadership role [in environmental science] so that we as a nation can take steps towards becoming a leader in the world.” She encouraged students to be aware of their consumption and pollution levels in order to fight back against global warming.
In addressing education, Gregoire emphasized the importance of education in becoming successful, and how important it is to take advantage of all educational opportunities that are presented.
“There are three things to success: education, education, and education,” Gregoire said. “We want to have a world-class education system in Washington. It begins when a child is born and goes on to include lifelong learning.”
“You will be the inspired leaders of tomorrow,” she said. “You will lead the city, county, state, and nation to be the best it can be.”
After the governor finished, the conference welcomed 13-year-old Austin Gutwein, founder of the charity foundation, Hoops of Hope. The foundation benefits the families of AIDS victims in Africa through pledges for the shooting of free-throws. He told the audience that he was able to make a difference by doing something he had a passion for: basketball.
“Everyone has something to offer,” Gutwein said. “You don’t have to think of something crazy, just something simple that makes a difference.”
Gutwein said he started the foundation because “I know that kids in Africa lose their parents to AIDS and I just couldn’t imagine losing mine. I felt I needed to do something to help.”
To date, Hoops of Hope has grown to include participants across the world, and has funded a high school and medical lab in Sinazongwe, Zambia. Gutwein visited the school calling it “amazing” and a “joyful experience.”
The medical lab will help treat people diagnosed with AIDS.
“This clinic will help treat people in the region” said Gutwein “and we did it by shooting some hoops.
“You don’t need to change the world, just change it for one person,” he added.
After Gutwein’s presentation, the students broke up into small table groups to brainstorm ideas that could improve Bellevue in different areas including education, recreation, transportation, health, and safety. Bellevue Youth Link members joined the tables, and each group came up with their most important idea, sharing it with the group. This led to ideas like more bus routes on weekends so that teens don’t have to rely on their parents for transportation, and sex education offered at a younger age so that students are educated and prepared for decisions they will be faced with once they reach high school.
To close the Conference, Helena Stephens, Family, Youth & Teen Services Manager for the Bellevue Parks & Community Services Department, informed students that this year marks the 10 year anniversary of the Bellevue 24 Hour Relay Challenge. The students gathered on the front steps of the Meydenbauer Center to film invitational videos to Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres, asking them to come to Bellevue for the event.
Matt Hansen is a student at Bellevue’s International School.