By Curt Yeomans
Keanna Wilkins' attitude about the People to the People's World Leadership Forum was noticeably different in May 2008, than it was when she sat down with the Clayton News Daily for an interview on the same subject in August 2007.
Gone was the girl who could barely contain her excitement about going to Washington D.C., for a week. In her place, was a calm, relaxed young lady, who reflected on learning about leadership, sacrifice and the importance of remembering the United States' history.
OK, she still had a little sense of awe and wonderment when she talked about seeing the Lincoln Monument for the first time.
"When you learn about it in class, you don't realize how big it really is," Wilkins said. "Supposedly, if you look at Abraham Lincoln's face long enough, you can see the face of Robert E. Lee, but I didn't see it at first. Then a another girl who was participating in the program told me to squint my eyes, so I did and it was like, 'Oh yeah, I can see it now.'"
Wilkins, 11, recently completed the fifth grade at Hawthorne Elementary School, and she will attend Union Grove Middle School in Henry County next year after her family moves across the county line. She said the opportunity to participate in the People to People World Leadership Forum was an invaluable experience, which helped broaden her understanding about U.S. History and leadership.
"We learned how past leaders, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were good leaders, but we also learned about bad leaders, like Adolph Hitler," Wilkins said.
Fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, who participate in the one-week forum, spend their Spring Break in Washington D.C., where they learn about leadership-related skills, such as communication, problem-solving and team work. They participate in small-group exercises, which focus on strategy, decision-making, building consensus and promoting a positive change in society.
"You can't just be the boss of everybody else," said Wilkins. "You have to listen to other people, because if someone has an idea that is better than yours, you should be open to trying it. You have to be open to suggestions."
The forum is organized by People to People International, which is a group that encourages understanding and tolerance by having students participate in direct contact with people who come from other religious, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
"Sometimes, when you're in a social studies class, it can sound a little boring, but this was much more interesting," Wilkins said. "You could actually see it."
Wilkins said the students got to learn about several wars which the United State participated in. They visited the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, and they took a one-day field trip to visit the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Penn.
One of the activities which the students have to participate in is a letter-writing exercise. They have to write a letter to the people who fought in any war. The students get to pick which war the veterans are from, and the pupils get to say whatever they want to say. Wilkins randomly picked the Vietnam veterans, although she has no relatives that she knows of, who fought in that war.
She had heard a lot about the war, though, in school, so she decided to write a letter to veterans of that war, thanking them for their military service. Afterward, her group visited the Vietnam memorial, and Wilkins said it was a surreal experience.
"They say that when it rains, all of the names on the wall disappear," She said. "Somebody said it's like someone is crying over the wall and the names are being washed away, but when the rain stops, the names come back."
Etorsha Reese, Wilkins' fourth-grade teacher at Hawthorne, recommended her former pupil for the program, and was thrilled to hear the student had a positive learning experience during the forum. Reese said she wants to see more Clayton County fifth-graders participate in the forum in the future.
"It lets them know these places are real, they aren't just pictures in a slide show, or words in a textbook," Reese said