Positive Tracks Sweat for Good Summit, by Gioia Perugini

Last Friday I moderated the opening night panel for the annual Positive Tracks Sweat for Good Summit, which brings together leaders in philanthropy, athletics and community service to highlight the remarkable ways in which youth use sports to give back to their communities. On the panel just happened to be he of Can’t Buy Me Love and Grey’s Anatomy fame, McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey. In talking with him before the panel, it was clear that Patrick’s commitment to the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing isn’t just in name only. We talked about his efforts to bring world-class, cutting edge support to cancer patients and their families in Lewiston, Maine. He cited the success of yoga, reiki, acupuncture and nutrition education in helping the Center’s patients and families. He lit up the room when talking about the efforts of young people who use athletics to engage with and support the Center’s work. As he was later quoted in a Boston Magazine article “If there’s a need in your community and you see it, you recognize it—then act on it. Where you can start to change the world is in your backyard.”

Once the AP photographers got their pics and the rest of us got our photo ops for Facebook and Instagram, the evening’s true celebrities began to emerge. Young people ranging in age from 13 to 23 talked about their commitment to using athletics to give back to their communities. Their causes ran the gamut from health to education to international aid. At some point the “what” of the cause almost didn’t matter. Young people – the so-called “Generation Z” –want to engage with their world in very different ways than their Gen X parents. They are socially minded at their core, technology is in their DNA and their “FOMO” (I needed a translation, Fear of Missing Out) is so strong that they are game for almost anything. And it’s got to be fun. Using sports as a way to give back to their communities helps young people channel that energy and enthusiasm toward healthy risk taking. They have found multiple ways to make giving back to their community fun, inspiring and active. When a tool or language or something that they need to accomplish their goal didn’t exist, they created it themselves. Sure they need support from an adult in their lives – sometimes—but as a 16-year old panelist Jasper said, “Don’t call me a young adult. I’m a kid. I want to do kid things, and I want to do things my friends and I will have fun doing. And I don’t want to wait until adulthood to make a difference.” They can spot something that has had “kid input” a mile away, according to Jasper, and they gravitate toward organizations, events and causes that are youth-centric.

The funny thing is, the adults who are supporting them through this race or walk or ride find themselves transformed in the process. The leadership of Positive Tracks wasn’t afraid to let the kids design last week’s event, and have the young people tell the adults what they wanted to learn. Nonprofits and philanthropy should take note–if you truly listen to the next generation, good things will happen and you can develop life-long ambassadors, problem solvers, and world-changers.

Perhaps the best concept of the evening came from one of the superstar panelists, Dana, a track and field athlete and undergrad at Dartmouth, who noted that it’s easy to be the first person out on the dance floor. But it’s the second person who will get the rest of the room dancing. Our challenge as adults who want to see youth succeed and thrive is to cultivate a generation who wants to be that second person on the dance floor.

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