Nearly 130 high school students from Bryan and College Station attended the 21st annual United Way Youth Leadership Day on Friday.

Hosted by the United Way of the Brazos Valley’s Youth Leadership Cabinet, the day serves as an introduction for students interested in getting involved in their community through service.

“We don’t ever try to do anything by ourselves, because we can’t,” Alison Prince, CEO of United Way of the Brazos Valley, said. “You just can’t do it by yourself. The issues that we’re trying to tackle around education, financial stability and health are too big for one organization, and it really does take every part of the community doing something. … You can get involved and you can support your community, and United Way will give you an opportunity to do that.”

With presentations from eight of United Way’s 22 partner agencies, the day also allows the students to get to know more about what United Way does and how it impacts the community, cabinet co-chair and Bryan Collegiate High School senior Jesus Vega-Tirado noted.

Seeing some of the presentations, Rudder High School junior Tianna Mathis said “makes you really wonder ‘What could I do to help, and why haven’t I [done] anything to help?’ It makes you want to go out and make a change in the world.”

Students from the eight high schools represented at Friday’s event were mixed together at different tables, allowing each person to get to know their peers from throughout the area.

“I think it just helps us grow as a community overall, just getting to meet new people,” said College Station High School junior Amaya Bowman, who serves as her school’s chair on the cabinet.

The 129 students who attended the event came from A&M Consolidated High School, Allen Academy, Bryan Collegiate High School, Bryan High School, College Station High School, College View High School, Rudder High School and Brazos Christian High School.

Helping open the event at First Baptist Church of Bryan, Prince told the students United Way fights for making the community better.

“We all do better when we all do better,” she said. “When we all have basic needs met, we all do better.”

Both Prince and keynote speaker Alton “Tiger” Burton said the students should not limit what they believe they can do because of their age.

Burton, who serves as tobacco prevention and control coordinator for BVCASA, said he hears all the time people say the youth are tomorrow’s leaders.

“No. They’re leaders today, and they need to understand that and know that and take that mentality and perspective in terms of how they approach life,” he said.

In his speech, he told the students about the time he realized his impact at the age of 16, following the death of his father.

He was a student at Bryan High School, and the day after his dad died, he still had school and a football game in Jersey Village. His parents had never missed a game in any sport he played, he said, but his mom told him she could not be there. She did not think she could handle attending without her husband by her side.

Following the national anthem, Burton said, he looked up into the stands with tears in his eyes and saw his mom, sisters and about 25 family members.

“At 16, I had provided courage and strength to my mom and my family,” he said. “At 16. I wasn’t intentionally trying to do it. I was just thinking of doing what was in me and what’s in each and every one of you guys. So again, you don’t have to wait until you’re 20, 30 to inspire, to motivate, to make a difference. You guys are in a position where you can do that right now. You can have impact right now.”

His goal with his speech, Burton said, is to make the students think beyond their phones, social media and their relationships. His challenge to the students was to think about what they want, their purpose and if they are doing everything in their power to achieve that.

“I challenge you guys that going forward that you’re going to make the rest of your life the best of your life,” he said. “This is your moment. This is your time. There’s nobody holding you back but you. I can inspire. I will inspire. I must. I can succeed. I will succeed. I must. … I can. I will. I must. It’s not an option.”

Throughout the day, the students were able to learn about some of the challenges people in their community face and the agencies established to help people overcome those challenges and setbacks.

Ron Crozier, director of community relations and development at Twin City Mission, called Youth Leadership Day one of the “most rewarding” things he gets to do because of the direction he is able to help provide the students who look to serve their community.

“They’re working together, not only with representatives from their own individual campus, but from all of the high schools, so all of a sudden, there’s commonality,” he said. “We live in a world of competitiveness. We live in a world of separation and me versus them and us versus they and all those things. It’s really cool to see everybody come together with the same agenda, and then I get to share my story with them. That’s tremendous. That’s priceless.”

Noting the fear and discomfort the students felt when he pulled one student to represent a person who is homeless, Crozier said, it represents how the community feels about the problems it faces each day.

“We see the plight that’s in our community, but we’re afraid to look at it head on,” he said. “We don’t want to make eye contact with it. … But the only way we’re going to make change is to make eye contact with it, is to accept that it’s there and be a part of it.”

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