Start the Presses: Youth leaders and responsibility

I woke up early Friday morning, my eyes blinking against the light and the sound of my alarm blaring in the predawn gloom. The balmy morning air gently woke me up as I made my way north to Glendale Community College.

(As a side note, is this warm weather as disconcerting to you as it is to me? I've turned on the air conditioning in my home three or four days this January, and have yet to touch the heat.)

About 100 students from Glendale and Burbank, accompanied by a phalanx of business people, educators and other community members gathered at 7:30 a.m. to take part in the annual Youth Leadership Conference.

The conference, which is put on by the local Character & Ethics Project — of which I'm a board member — gathers high schoolers from the surrounding area for a daylong gab fest on leadership as well as group activities meant to teach lessons about ethical decision-making.

The conference began with the pomp and circumstance I've begun to believe come standard with a Glendale event: a flag salute led by the Crescenta Valley High School Air Force Jr. ROTC, the national anthem sung by a choir from Glendale High, and no less than six introductions and welcomes.

The main event, though, was the keynote speech given by Paul and Denise Fejtek, a couple whose athletic accomplishments would put most professional athletes to shame. The pair shared their experiences climbing the so-called Seven Summits — the highest peaks on the seven continents — culminating with their assent of Mount Everest.

These feats are all the more remarkable when you note that Paul Fejtek, who attended Hoover High, has essentially no use of his right hand due to a birth injury. I wrote about the couple a while back when they were at the Glendale library promoting their book “Steps to the Summit,” a copy of which was provided to the student attendees. If you haven't read it, I definitely recommend.

This was my third time in attendance but the first time I was handed the keys to my own group. I guess it took them that long to trust I wouldn't say anything too bizarre to impressionable minds. (I kid. I kid.)

The 20 or so members of my group filed into a GCC classroom to go through a series of group exercises on teamwork and relative versus absolute ethics.

Pretty heady stuff. I was deeply impressed, though, by how thoughtful and insightful many of the students were, guided and helped by the adults in the room. The world is a challenging place, filled with temptations to take the easy way out, and clouded by the fog of gray.

Lord knows many decisions we make as adults are rarely completely right or completely wrong. Self-control is a muscle, and it gets tired like everything else. But, in my estimation, if you change your mindset, decisions about what's right and wrong require less work.

At the end of the day, I made a suggestion to the group that I would like to share. There are many people that make it their lives’ work to accomplish tremendous, world-changing things. People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela. They spend nearly all of their waking moments working in mind-blowing squalor or spend decades in prison because of their beliefs.

It's difficult not to feel small when we hear about such people, to throw up our hands and decide because we aren't likely to be canonized or have a national holiday named after us, there's little point in doing anything.

To this I say nonsense. Everyone should try for greatness and to do amazing things. But remember to do something else as well. Choose one thing, be it volunteering at a shelter, tutoring someone who needs it, or simply being kind to a family member that doesn't really deserve it.

Let's call that your square, a metaphorical 2-foot by 2-foot piece of world that is yours to take care of, and yours alone. There are excuses: no “I'm busy” or “I'm tired.” Just keep your square clean; keep it immaculate.

Do more if you can, sure, but never forget what's in front of you. The students I met today are clearly going to be doing that. We can all do the same.

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DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 627-3234 or dan.evans@latimes.com.

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