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Article updated: 1/21/2013 6:15 PM

Elgin youth leadership conference grows, remembers MLK

By Tara García Mathewson

Emily Pizano, 14, had the day off from Kenyon Woods Middle School in South Elgin on Monday, but the Youth Leadership Academy cadet didn't spend it home watching TV.

Pizano started her day at 9 a.m. sorting through food donations at the Church of the Brethren's general offices in Elgin. Churches across the area collected almost 8,000 pounds of food young people sorted Monday morning for distribution to various food banks.

Students gathered at four sites across Elgin for a morning of service held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. They followed up the project with a leadership conference at The Centre of Elgin where Pizano stuck with the food theme, sitting in on a workshop hosted by representatives of the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

Pizano learned startling facts like 11 percent of Kane County residents are living in poverty -- enough people to fill Soldier Field. More than half of children in Elgin schools participate in free or reduced-price meal programs. One in 10 people face hunger hardship in Elgin and South Elgin.

And Northern Illinois Food Bank presenters Anna Nelson and Juana Montalvo made sure the students knew the food crisis is not just for the stereotypical people who come to mind when discussing poverty.

"Just because you have a college education, just because you work hard does not mean you can always make ends meet," Nelson said.

Pizano, who sat in on the food bank workshop in large part because her friends wanted to go than from her own personal choice, said she was glad she learned what she did.

"I honestly didn't know there were so many people," Pizano said. "I have a neighbor that looks totally fine. They could be hungry and I didn't know."

Other workshops covered themes like bullying, relationships between law enforcement and youth and diversity appreciation.

Elgin Police Sgt. Gary Neal Sr., supervisor for Juvenile Investigations and the School Resource Officers Program, gave the keynote speech, challenging the students to stretch their service beyond the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

"Live a life of service, not just this day but every day," Neal said.

This was the second year the city of Elgin added the youth day of service and leadership conference to its annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial events. Dianha Ortega Ehreth, executive director of the Youth Leadership Academy, said 112 YLA cadets attended along with students from 10 church groups, two Girl Scout troops and two school clubs.

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