Catholic sleep-away camp may not sound like the hippest annual event, but the Pasadena summer leadership conference devised by the Association of Catholic Student Councils has become a hot ticket, growing exponentially. The nonprofit’s year-round curriculum now boasts more than 27,000 alumni.
TACSC’s singular focus to create the new leaders of tomorrow, though faith-based, is open to all rising 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders of all denominations and schools. There’s a lot of pop music (think Taylor Swift and candles), team building, games, problem-solving and skit-based comedy scenarios intertwined with a lot of self-introspection, self-esteem building and group dialogue.
And actually, yes, the cool kids in town do want to go. So much so, they keep coming back, with many attending multiple camps and then returning to teach the younger students.
Held at the campuses of Loyola Marymount University, UC Irvine and Claremont McKenna College, the coed five-day TACSC (pronounced “task”) Summer Conference is also seen as a way for middle schoolers to get a taste of college life.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” said Hudson Stimmler, 13, who recently completed his second TACSC leadership conference at UCI. Last year, he attended the camp held at LMU. “We learn how to talk to grown-ups as a leader, improve our communication skills, how to lead other people if you see someone being bullied. We learn about that in school, too, but TACSC takes it to the next level to promote [stopping] bullying even from happening in the first place. I feel like it really grew my maturity a lot more.”
Hudson went to camp the first year after participating in TACSC because he was part of St. Bede the Venerable School’s student activities council, but this year he wanted to go “just for fun,” he noted.
That is exactly what TACSC would like to see.
“Leaders come in all shapes and sizes,” said Heidi McNiff Johnson, TACSC executive director. “Leaders can be quiet in the classroom or on the sports field, they can have interests in many different fields, not just student government. Everyone has leadership potential.”
The nonprofit organization teaches about 150 students at each summer conference, and has produced 10,700 attendees, or delegates, since its inception in 1981. During the regular school year, TACSC teaches leadership to middle schoolers through “student leadership days” across Southern California and Arizona, with about 3,200 high school and middle school students participating this past year.
The nonprofit’s core curriculum features four pillars of leadership building: goal, plan and vision building; the ability to communicate that plan and motivate others to support it; teaching a child to mentor, a part of learning that real leaders bring people up with them; and the idea that you cannot lead unless you serve — you lead by giving back your time, talents and efforts.
There’s a secret sauce to teaching these components — TACSC is based on peer-to-peer teaching. College students who are former participants are trained to teach the high schoolers, who in turn teach the middle schoolers. McNiff Johnson compares the process to a waterfall.
“We train the trainers — we train generations of trainers,” she said. “Kids can do anything. You just need to give them the training and then the opportunity to implement it. … These kids are all remarkable, they just haven’t had the chance to show it before.”
TACSC offers a “Core Leadership Team” to high schoolers throughout the year, teaching skills on public speaking, communication and problem solving; applying the skills and teaching them to others; and developing mentor connections from high school to college to employment. The college students and high schoolers together form a staff to teach the summer leadership conference to middle schoolers. All are volunteers.
“It’s really fun,” said Eleanor Watkins, a senior at Mayfield Senior School this fall. Watkins, who has worked as a summer conference counselor at the UC Irvine camp, was also a TACSC camper in 8th grade. “I remember going into camp as a middle schooler, thinking I knew what it meant to be a leader, but when I came out I really understood the smaller things of leadership, the important details that support it.”
Watkins, who is committed to play volleyball at Georgetown in fall 2019, said those leadership skills have been useful on the volleyball court. She’s been team captain in the past, and hopes to lead again this year.
“I learned the fine line between being bossy as a leader versus really helping the people around you be better. It’s about learning my teammates’ strengths and weaknesses and learning when they’re having trouble with those strengths, understanding what they need from the team and knowing the balance.”
TACSC Program Director Gene Detre was one of the first camp participants, shortly after the program was founded in 1981 by Sister Marilyn Thickett. He loved it so much that he stayed connected, serving for years as a volunteer and then as the program’s sole staffer. Although the program initially was begun for kids elected to student councils, “we found out very quickly that while only one kid is elected president, the four others who ran for the position are also very worthy of that leadership,” Detre said.
The program also takes pride in teaching girls and boys equally, as well as children of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
“We have an eclectic group of kids and no cookie-cutter delegates. One of the beauties of working with middle school students is that they don’t have those negative interpretations of others yet — they’re like a blank slate. The compassion and openness that they show is inspiring,” he said. “The best part is what we call TACSC magic. It’s something we can’t put on paper. … It puts like-minded middle schoolers together and allows them to feel comfortable with their ideas, gives them the opportunity to try new things without being shot down.”
TACSC’s ultimate goal is to help each student tap his or her talents and passion, then use those to give back to the community. One of the biggest core principles — that you cannot lead unless you serve — is driven home through the summer conferences and yearlong programs. The nonprofit encourages each student to devise a plan on how to give back in the future. There have even been nonprofits created by the students at TACSC conferences.
This is a task with which McNiff Johnson is very familiar. Apart from running TACSC, she also founded Children’s Hospital Spiritual Care Guild, a nonprofit organization that provides chaplains of all faiths 24 hours a day, seven days a week to the 150,000 families that come to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles each year. She also serves on the board of Christ Child Society of Pasadena and Project Giving Kids, a nonprofit that teaches children philanthropy.
While always passionate about volunteering, the Mayfield School alumna felt a stronger calling after a family tragedy: Her mother was killed in a car accident, along with close family friends. The incident spurred McNiff Johnson, after she had created Spiritual Care, to start writing about other nonprofits begun out of passion and love. Her blog, Charity Matters, is dedicated to telling the stories of other nonprofits.
McNiff Johnson has big goals for TACSC in the future. The nonprofit will work with about 122 elementary schools and about 31 Catholic high schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Orange County, San Diego and Phoenix this year. The group also may expand with an online curriculum in the near future, and hopes to create some paid staff positions for college students.
“Planting the seeds of compassion in our youth is something I feel really strongly about doing,” she said. “We help them find the thing that puts a fire in their belly, that stokes their passion to make a difference. Ultimately I would like to see every school invest in its leaders, realizing that this is an invaluable investment in our kids. That is what is going to change the world, because these kids are all amazing, they just need the opportunity and the skills.”