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UT ELITE Find Leadership in Service

Published: August 30, 2010

Before classes began at UT, 120 students were already busy learning leadership skills at the annual Educating Leaders in Today's Environment (ELITE) retreat.

The two-day retreat invites first-year and transfer students to participate in team-building skills and self reflection and explore leadership on a local and global level. Jessica Fontaine ’11, an ELITE mentor, said the best thing about ELITE is the network of friends students gain before classes even begin.

“You have 100 instant friends who are all involved with leadership in the community,” said Fontaine, a double major in business management and economics. “It’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in college.”

ELITE is divided into two retreats — the traditional ELITE retreat and ELITE Outdoors — which introduce students to the Social Change Model of Leadership Development, a values-based, non-hierarchical leadership model developed specifically for college students who see leadership as a vehicle for creating positive social change in their communities.

The retreats were held Aug. 22-24 and both had a community service component that Fontaine said is important for setting students’ paths.

“For young adults just starting their collegiate experience, the ELITE service component shows them service is still important,” Fontaine said. “You do service in high school so you can get into college. This is a model for them that it’s still something we do as established young adults.”

This year’s service project was inspired by a student, though a much younger one.

Jessica Valdes, a third grader, started collecting toiletries for homeless people when she was 4 and encountered a homeless person setting up a makeshift bed on the sidewalk. Valdes went home and immediately started collecting travel-sized soaps and shampoos from family members and friends.

In her first year she collected 1,000 items, doubling her original goal. By this summer, Jessica’s Homeless Helpers had collected 5,895 items which Valdes counts and sorts into hygiene kits to distribute to people in need and to donate to local ministries like the Volunteers of America and Cynthia Pinckney Ministries.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small to make a big difference,” said Valdes, who is 8. “Anyone can do it.”

Kim Northup, associate director of the Office of Student Leadership and Engagement, heard about Valdes and recognized the youngster in the spring as the keynote speaker at the annual Leadership Awards Night at UT. Northup saw the opportunity to extend the outreach with the ELITE students and centered the retreats’ service project on Jessica’s Homeless Helpers.

“I wanted our students to see a young community leader,” Northup said. “They were genuinely surprised that someone so young was so committed to a cause.”

UT students donated 5,713 items and made 343 hygiene kits that Valdes has already begun to distribute to Mission Tampa, which is preparing to launch a dental truck, and the Emergency Care Help Organization.

Fontaine, who has changed her UT major numerous times, was really impressed by Valdes’ commitment.

“For me it hit home. I admire anyone, especially someone who is 4 years old, who is so dedicated and passionate about one thing in life,” Fontaine said. “She is very, very inspiring.”

You can find Valdes’ Facebook page under Jessica’s Homeless Helpers.

Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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