DIXFIELD – With eyes closed and arms folded across her body, Deven Madore fell backward off a picnic table Thursday at Dirigo High School.

However, the SAD 21 student never touched the ground despite performing the feat over and over again. That’s because she was caught each time by the interlocked arms of fellow classmates during a teamwork and trust-building exercise.

Thursday culminated a four-day youth leadership workshop conference dubbed Striving Towards Excellence and Preparing for Undergraduate Programs. Funded by a New Hampshire Campus Compact Digital Divide Grant, the workshop attracted 31 students who are already in youth leadership positions.

Seventeen-year-old Mark Gagne of Dixfield, who will be a high school senior this year, loved the experience and field trips to Lewiston-area colleges.

“I thought the program was great, especially the trip to Bates, where I hope to go,” he said. “I’m a counselor and this workshop will further my leadership skills and it helped me learn how they run their conference so I can run one.”

During the conference, the youths spent seven hours a day learning how to become facilitators while developing leadership, goal-setting and action-planning skills, said organizer Dori Fellman.

They will also be performing from four to six hours worth of community service projects this school year as part of the program.

The conference, a first for SAD 21, was an instant success, said Fellman, a GEAR UP activity coordinator employed by the University of Maine at Farmington.

But because it was a new program taking place during the summer, she and fellow mentor Katherine Harvey, a Big Brother Big Sisters representative, had their misgivings about how well it would be received.

“We didn’t know what to expect with the program, but it’s been fabulous,” Fellman said. “I think it was a huge success and we far surpassed what we thought would come of it.”

Considering that the students gained no academic credit despite participating in the endeavor and relinquished four days of their summer vacation, Fellman and fellow instructor Katherine Harvey, were pleased with the high turnout and the youths’ attentiveness.

“These kids are phenomenal and their parents are very supportive,” Fellman added.

Brianna Janke, 13, of Canton, an upcoming eighth-grader, thought the leadership workshop was a much-needed program.

“It was quite fun and I’m really glad I came,” Janke said. “It was a really good experience to learn how to be a leader and run organizational meetings and to meet and make new friends. I think everyone would like it.”

Katherine Gagne, 14, of Dixfield will enter high school this year. After participating, her anxieties about becoming a freshman vanished.

“I was nervous at first, but then I met everyone here and they were very welcoming,” she said. “It will help me next year to lead all of my friends through the transition process. It’s not at all nerve-racking now.”

In addition to group participation in lectures, the students also learned – while blindfolded – how to set mousetraps, crawl through hula hoops held by the knees of classmates, and fall backward off a picnic table into the interlocked arms of friends.

Each activity helped them overcome fears and anxieties while building trust, initiative and team work.

“They learned things Thursday that would benefit them individually,” she added.

Katherine Gagne could attest to that.

“They taught me that there are all different types of leaders – from quiet ones to loud ones like me – and I gained some great new friends and I just wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.

That was music to the ears of Fellman, who said she believes next year’s program will be youth-driven.

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