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Million Minor March: Students Dream Big at Volunteer Summit

Students from Maplewood Richmond Heights High School and MRH Middle School gathered Thursday in Overland to develop large-scale volunteer projects with dozens of other St. Louis-metro-area students.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the number of schools to participate in The BIG Return Summit. A total of 34 participated. This article has been updated to reflect the correct number.

In May, students at want to stage a march of 1 million youth volunteers in downtown St. Louis. On Thursday, three upperclassmen convened with instructor Patrice Bryan at Build-A-Bear Workshop headquarters in Overland to determine how to do that.

They met as part of a first-of-its-kind youth event, The BIG Return Summit. The summit aimed to bring together students from MRH High School and 34* other St. Louis-metro-area schools to brainstorm and begin executing large-scale community service efforts.

Build-A-Bear Workshop is among the companies supporting the summit.

"We're trying to find the tipping point for social change in St. Louis," Bryan said. She teaches MRH High School's cornerstone class, which focuses on the MRH School District's values of leadership, scholarship, stewardship and citizenship. Her students have been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, which explores how ideas can be spread like epidemics.

Tight-knit group, large-scale goal
The Million Minor March would happen at Kiener Plaza. Youth would be able to join by verifying their participation in a volunteer activity.

MRH got involved in Thursday's summit because of its previous volunteer work with The Mission Continues, a group that helps veterans. Mission Continues had representation at the summit, Bryan said.

Students and community members worked with the organization earlier this year to perform cleanup at in .

Sam Martin, an MRH senior, said his group is planning its first steps. They want to give participants free T-shirts and motivate people to do good through volunteerism.

"It gives you a feeling of satisfaction," Martin said.

His partners were senior Jasmine Buchanan and junior Kaitlyn Raborn.

The students intend to spread the word about the project using a website, social networking and blogs, Buchanan said, though they realize "in person is the best way." They also plan to visit other schools to share their plan.

Raborn is moving out of the district this week but said she attended to help with the group's ideas.

Clean water gets focus
In another room, students from talked about ways to encourage their community to reduce its use of plastic water bottles.

Eighth-graders Taylor Kennedy, Benjamin Speed and Maja Eernisse mapped out their plan, working with Robert Dillon, the school's principal. The three are members of the principal's advisory council.

"It feels like there's a lot of momentum," said Dillon, noting that St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay are backing The BIG Return.

Speed said some of the materials found in plastic bottles have been linked to cancer. He said St. Louis water has a high fluoride content, making it healthier than bottled water.

Kennedy said it's better to buy metal water bottles and noted the importance of increasing awareness about the issue. 

Summit rooted in Iowa student's volunteer efforts
Talia Leman, 16, is a junior at Roosevelt High School and Central Academy in Des Moines, IA. She developed The BIG Return summit as part of RandomKid, the organization that she founded to promote youth volunteerism.

Leman chose St. Louis to pilot the summit after winning Build-A-Bear Workshop's Huggable Heroes award in 2007 for helping raise $10 million for people affected by Hurricane Katrina. She pointed to the city's 2010 ranking by Convio as one of the 10 most generous U.S. cities in terms of online giving.

The Waukee, IA, resident said students will meet again Nov. 18 and then in mid-January to assess and overcome any "wrong-way signs" they encounter along the way to developing their volunteer projects.

Business leaders underwrite the cost of the projects, and the goal is that of the funds raised for the students' various charitable causes, 10 percent will go back to The BIG Return so that similar projects can be implemented nationally.

She wants to see yearly summits like this one held in St. Louis and other parts of the country.

"I'm very pleased with what we have and the outcome," Leman said of Thursday's summit.

Washington, D.C.-based group supports initiative
Josh Collins, a solutions catalyst for Washington, D.C.-based Ashoka, spent five weeks in St. Louis talking with school representatives ahead of the summit. Youth Venture, a division of Ashoka, helped put on the event.

"It seemed like they were starving for leadership opportunities for their youth," Collins said. The goal of the summit is to empower young leaders and plant seeds for the future. While he acknowledged that The BIG Return will probably take a loss in its first year, the plan is to build momentum for the second and third year.

Collins served as the chair of community service for his high school's student council. He went on to start two companies, a nonprofit that gives youth money to do service projects and a software group that connects kids with volunteer opportunities of interest to them.

Those events changed the trajectory of his life, and he said Thursday's summit could serve as a spark for students.

St. Louis will serve as the blueprint for similar efforts in the future, he said, and the goal is to develop between 30 and 40 volunteer projects in the area in a three-month time period.

The summit allows students from private and public schools—in the city and the county—to trade ideas about service.

Editor's note: Participating students committed to making a difference in their communities are eligible for nomination to the 2012 Huggable Heroes program, which begins Jan. 12.

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