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Caldwell, N.J. – Thinking deeply about how you communicate, text and post might not be the way most teenagers would like to spend a week at summer camp, but  10 high school students found it was the best way they could imagine.

The students gathered on the campus of Caldwell University from July 15 to 21 for the Spirituality and Leadership Institute program.

“We probed questions like: ‘What does it look like for us to eat, drink, dress, shop, watch, play and love in ways that help and heal those around us and foster health and happiness in our own lives?’” explained Dr. Kyle Bennett, Ph.D., director of the institute and a Caldwell University assistant professor of philosophy.

“Mr. Bennett made us understand that nothing just is. There is always a further meaning,” said Rich Franklin, a rising senior at St. Mary of the Assumption High School in Elizabeth.

Now in its second year, the program is aimed at helping young people look at avenues for promoting public justice and seeking the common good. Mornings consisted of lectures and class; afternoons and evenings included free time and organized events. The students lived in the university’s residence hall.

“It was a new experience every day,” said Viv Zeballos, a rising senior at Millburn High School.

“I felt like I was actually in college,” said Franklin, who attended the institute for a second year.

Among the speakers was Meghan Ritchey, an events coordinator and curator in New York City, who gave career advice. She stressed the importance of “being mindful of serving others” and at the same time providing a quality product. Ritchey said that as a freelancer she must “rely on God because there is so much uncertainty.” She encouraged the students to choose good mentors and to find ways to work with teams, putting “experiences over events” and concentrating on “relationships more than work.” She said they should show God they are willing to take risks. “Anything you think you are bad at, you should do.”

Ritchey’s talk was “so motivating and inspiring,” said Zeballos, who works at a bakery and now feels empowered to take risks and to share her creative promotion ideas. For Noah Wickenheiser, a rising junior from Notre Dame High School in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, Bennett’s talk on interacting with others was most valuable. It “made me think about how I act around others … and how I value others,” he said.

Other speakers included: actor Matt Lowe on thinking and creativity, business executive and Caldwell adjunct professor Barbara Davies on journaling and expression, and Assistant Professor of Theology Christopher Cimorelli, Ph.D., on working and the environment.

Getting to know students from different schools and locations was a broadening experience. “I’m basically a city kid” who found a “country friend,” said Franklin.

Activities included rope courses at the Turtle Back Zoo, a Jackals baseball game, an ice cream social, dodgeball, kickball and mini golf.

The program was well organized, said Wickenheiser. “They included everyone’s ideas.”

“I’d rate it as a really positive experience,” said Zeballos.

“A 10 out of 10,” agreed Wickenheiser.

The institute is made possible through a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.

The other students who participated are:

Antonia Ippolito,  Pope John XXIII Regional High School

Nasir Jones and Jennifer Lawson from St. Mary of the Assumption High School

Daniel Cwynar from James Caldwell High School

Sophia Feijoo from St. Dominic Academy

Miles Smith from Union Catholic Regional High School

Sidney Lauredant from Oratory Preparatory School

An optional overnight weekend will be held October 6 to 9 at the Spruce Lake Retreat Center in Canadensis, Pennsylvania.