November 09, 2009

Simon institute earns honor for serving youths

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will receive an honor later this month for its annual Paul Simon Leadership Conference.

The institute will receive a community award for its service to youths from the East St. Louis chapter of Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc. The ceremony is at 4 p.m. on Nov. 15 at St. Paul Baptist Church, 1500 Bond Ave., in East St. Louis.

Started in November 2003 by institute founder and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and then-associate director Mike Lawrence, the leadership weekend brings junior high and high school youths from the Metro East area to SIUC for two days of activities. The weekend focuses on enhancing leadership qualities of African-American young men through reinforcing positive qualities, building skills and increasing career awareness education.

“There has been no more important endeavor for the institute than making a positive difference in the lives of these youths,” said Lawrence, who was with the institute since its inception and served as director from 2004 to 2008. “It is wonderful to receive recognition for doing so. But we owe the success of this initiative to the commitment of men and women in the East St. Louis area who have served as mentors and planning committee members. They are truly my heroes.”

The Top Ladies of Distinction East St. Louis chapter is honoring organizations “that have made significant contributions to the community …” The organization’s involvement with the leadership weekend goes back to the inaugural weekend in 2003.

Simon and Lawrence used a 1994 report by the Illinois Commission on African American Males, chaired by current U.S. Sen. Roland W. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general and SIUC graduate, as inspiration for the weekend. That report offered recommendations in several areas, including economic development and employment, education, family life and African-American manhood, health and housing.

The leadership conference honors Simon, who died in December 2003.

“This conference is one of the most important things we do,” institute Director David Yepsen said. “The problems facing young African-American men in our society are well documented and our leadership program is one small effort designed to help them deal with those challenges. This weekend was a chance to let these young men from the Metro East area see SIUC, sample college dorm life for a night and hear talented motivational speakers during the day. It gives them an opportunity to dream their dreams and develop some strategies and habits to achieve them.”

About three dozen students between 13 and 17 years old attended the seventh annual conference, Oct. 3-4. This year’s conference, “Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Empowerment and Service in the 21st Century and Beyond,” featured several speakers, including Timothy L. Smoot, senior vice president, chief financial officer, and co-founder of Meridian Management Group, Inc. The firm is a manager of commercial loan and equity funds focused on minority- and female-owned businesses.

The leadership conference and its organizers “have shown a level of love and care that transcends ‘community service’ by a landslide,” Smoot said. “The weekend is a great example of the experiences that our young men desire and deserve. I could feel their appreciation in my interactions with them.”

The information and resources provided by the leadership weekend planning team and the institute “will help mold men,” Smoot said.

“There should be a Paul Simon Institute operating in every inner city in the country,” he said.

Anthony Pernell, a senior at East St. Louis Senior High School, received the 2009 Paul Simon Leadership and Character Award. Oliver Keys, also a senior at East St. Louis Senior High School, earned first runner-up honors. Pernell and Keys each participated in the leadership weekend for four years. JeVon Adams Waker of East St. Louis, a senior at Cardinal Ritter College Prep, earned second runner-up honors. Adams is a two-year leadership weekend participant.

The award recipients received a plaque and Netbook computers.

All students are from local mentoring programs, said Linda Renee Baker, Institute/University professor and project director. Seven former conference youth participants have enrolled at SIUC, with a majority serving as Student Ambassadors with the institute, she said.

During the conference, students also heard from several successful business owners about starting and maintaining a successful business, Baker said. The speakers stressed the importance of education, self-discipline, self-respect and selecting friends wisely as components for economic success and in life, she said.

The students and institute staff also started planning for a series of community service projects that students will participate in, Baker said. The student-selected projects will unfold in the Metro East area in upcoming months, she said.

Baker emphasized the importance of the local mentors in the Metro East. A planning team consisting of local educational institutions, fraternal organizations, and other community-based agencies organizes the weekend, she said. Those groups include the East St. Louis chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Kappa Alpha Psi, Top Ladies of Distinction, the Boy Scouts, and the East St. Louis Senior High School Parent-Teacher Association.