ELLIOT PARK — This summer has been busy for Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF).
The nonprofit organization has opened a new office in Elliot Park at 609 S. 10th St., celebrated its ninth anniversary on Sept. 18, thrown its annual fundraising party and is busy gearing up for Give to the Max Day on Nov. 15, its single largest fundraising day of the year.
That would be a lot for any nonprofit, but STLF isn’t just any nonprofit. The organization works to reveal the leadership qualities inherent in young people through spring break service trips, during which students complete public service projects and team-building exercises. Co-executive director Irene Fernando said when the group was formed, people doubted it would be able to find students willing to spend their spring breaks serving others. But everyone involved in the creation of STLF was a young college student willing to do so, and they assumed they would be able to find other students with the same mindset.
“The way that it started was in freshman year, four of us got together at 3 a.m. over Top Ramen,” said Fernando. “Typical dorm room. We asked ourselves, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we as college freshmen could be seen as role models? Wouldn’t it be great if we as a bunch of teenagers could change the world?’ So our answer to that question was to do a spring break trip that we called the Pay It Forward tour.”
The first Pay It Forward tour recruited 43 people spread across four buses for an eight-day bus trip through Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. In the second year of the program, the trip needed 11 buses. The year after that required 25. The STLF founders graduated in 2007, hired themselves as full-time staffers and have continued operating ever since. The group is closing in on its 400th bus tour, resulting in 221,000 hours of service to date and nearly 16,000 participating students.
STLF’s bus trips and other programs are all lead by student volunteers, which is a key part of the organization’s goal.
“Our mission is to reveal leadership through service, relationships and action,” said Fernando. We don’t believe we build or create leaders, we’re revealing what’s already inside a person.”