Organ trafficking, genocide prevention, domestic violence and destruction in Haiti. It was hardly a typical day for the students at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.
For many of those gathered at a school-wide conference on human rights last week, it provided the chance to explore issues that connected the values they learn at school with the realities of life outside its walls.
"We learn a lot about tikkun olam, and this gives us the chance to hear about local and international issues, so that we can make a difference when we go out into our communities and into the larger community," said Devra Goldstein, a 10th-grader from Yardley, who is president of the human rights club and organized the conference. "Students want the opportunity to go out and do the things the speakers talk about."
What's Still Needed
The conference, which has taken place every few years since 1999, featured as its keynote speaker Chad Bissonnette, co-founder and director of Roots of Development, a nonprofit organization that is active in Haiti. Bissonnette, who taught himself Creole while working and volunteering in Haiti, returned recently from the devastated country to talk to the students about what he saw — and what still needs to be done.
"I challenge you to do more," Bissonnette told the packed auditorium. "When you meet someone who deserves a better life, figure out how you can give them the resources that they need."
"There are a lot of paths in front of you," he added. "Don't choose the path that focuses just on you or just on money. Choose the path that allows you to help people."
Bissonnette's speech was followed by break-out sessions, where students gathered in smaller groups to talk to experts about issues ranging from homelessness and nuclear proliferation to genocide and organ trafficking. In one session, students talked about the effects of illegal immigration on the economy, as well as government plans to deal with the issue. In another, they talked about teen date violence and about the signs of a healthy — or unhealthy — relationship.
"Sometimes when you are jealous, it's out of love," said Omri Dorani, an 11th-grader who lives in Wynnewood. "If you are going out with a girl and she's talking to another guy, you get jealous."
"You can be jealous," responded Tommie Wilkins, director of volunteer services for the Laurel House, a nonprofit organization that works with victims of domestic violence. "It's about what you do with those feelings."
The Reality on the Ground
Another break-out session was led by Bissonnette,. As he sat in a circle with a dozen students, they peppered him with questions, both technical and philosophical. Jackie Retig, a senior from Penn Valley, wanted to know about getting supplies to Haiti, despite the conditions, while Daniel Parmet, an 11th-grader from Wynnewood asked about the areas Bissonnette's organization has — and has not — reached.
"What are some of the things we can do to help more?" Parmet asked later, before the session ended.
"Start by learning more about the situation," Bissonnette answered. "You can help in a more effective way if you know more about the reality on the ground. You are attending this conference — sure, it's by force — but I can tell you all are interested in it and that's a start."
"Too many people," he added, "are thinking with their hearts, and they are wonderful people, but if they're not thinking with their heads, it can be very dangerous."
The human rights club, which boasts some 20 members, is active throughout the year, but the conference is their flagship activity. Members also tutor students, as well as volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Barrack students, meanwhile, are also collecting money for victims of the earthquake through fundraisers they have initiated.
"My friends thought I was crazy when I started working with teenagers," said Tom McLaughlin, an English teacher at the school who is the human rights club adviser. "But these kids have hearts of gold and they have genuine empathy for other people."
"This isn't about padding their college resumes," he continued. "They are wise beyond their years, and sometimes, you almost forget they are teenagers."