MONTICELLO – Blindfolded teenagers walked around a field at the 4-H camp at Allerton Park in Monticello on Friday, clapping hands and snapping fingers as they moved in circles, bumping gently against each other and giggling.
Huh? What kind of class is this?
It's not quite a class, but the exercise is about learning. For students who took part in Champaign County Operation Snowball's retreat this weekend, each game is actually a lesson in disguise. For the blindfolded exercise, students stood a few feet from each other, and each was given a number. Their goal was to find ways to communicate with each other to get in a number-ordered line – without using words.
"I like seeing that awakening that young people have, given the opportunity to discover for themselves," said Joe Omo-Osagie, a Parkland College counselor who has either worked or volunteered at Snowball retreats for the last two decades.
Twenty-one students from around the county – including Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul, Mahomet, Gifford and Thomasboro – have come to the retreat. Some have heard about the organization from friends, others from counselors.
"A lot of the kids are not in a specific clique," said Brie Bertges, the program director for Operation Snowball. Some – though not all – are dealing with behavioral issues, depression or another hard part of their life, she said. Some feel like outsiders – though not, hopefully, after becoming part of Snowball.
That's the point, Bertges said – to help students develop a healthy understanding of themselves and their responsibilities. "It's to have them feel a sense that they can trust people their own age," she said.
Champaign Central High School junior Zac Smith has made longtime friends at Snowball in the years he has been part of it.
"It's a place where you can be accepted, no matter what," he said. "I recommend it to anybody."
To build those friendships, students and staff – who are almost all volunteers – do trust activities like falling into each others' arms and talk in small groups about whatever issues that concern them. Then, Bertges said, the leaders try to help participants understand how to apply everything they have learned.
She said volunteers and teen leaders start training months in advance, learning about topics like crisis management. All the teen leaders were once participants, she said.
"We do focus a lot on leadership," Bertges said. "That's our main premise: Anyone can be a leader."
The small groups are the best part of the package, said Smith, who now helps lead the activities. "Snowball has helped me with a lot of personal problems," he said. "It's a support group about us helping each other – teens helping teens."
Urbana High School senior Samantha Smith also started as a participant and now helps lead. At Snowball, "you get to know people really well, really fast," she said. "Whatever you want to talk about, you get to talk (about). I think that's probably the most effective part of Snowball."
Amber Floyd, the new executive director of the county's Operation Snowball, said the program is funded by private donations and from grants.
This fall's retreat is Roe Maclin's first, but one day into the three-day camp, he's already glad he came. The Circle Academy student from Champaign said he wants to make more friends, talk and listen.
So far, he's finding that at the retreat, he said. "It's a good place to come and get what's on your chest off your chest."