“This is a blast,” said Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic.
He was talking not about his years entertaining Phillies fans (although he remembered those fondly) but about taking part in a recent Siegfried Youth Leadership Program® event, which aimed to build character and leadership traits in young people.
Raymond, Class of 1979 UD College of Health Sciences alum, joined members of The Siegfried Group at its youth conference on Tuesday, March 7, at Clayton Hall on the University of Delaware campus. Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics alumnus Rob Siegfried founded both the company that bears his name and the youth program, the latter designed to help young people transform themselves into better leaders to enrich their lives and inspire positive change. Partners in the event include Junior Achievement of Delaware and UD’s Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship.
During the event, speakers challenged 400 students in grades eight through 12 from in and around Delaware to develop positive character traits that would help them become effective leaders.
“Remember, there’s a lot of circumstances we can’t control in life,” Lauren Campbell, one of the Siegfried hosts and a regional chief of staff, told the group. “But one thing we control is our character ethic. We get to control how we show up to a situation.”
She encouraged students to come up with a word they’d want people to use when describing them – the crowd shouted out terms like “dependable,” “bold” and “committed” – and to share that goal with a teacher or family member who could help hold them accountable.
Guest speaker Raymond, son of legendary UD football coach Tubby Raymond, highlighted two key concepts: The power of fun, and the power of purposeful listening.
Often, he said, fun is seen as a waste of time or goofing off. But he recalled the positive impact the Phanatic made in hospital rooms, funerals and other difficult venues, bringing an emotional lift to people going through hard times. Raymond also spoke of values emphasized in the Phillies organization, including the importance of showing up early and being prepared to do the work with excellence – while also motivating people with fun. It was an approach that built a hugely successful brand in the Phillie Phanatic.
Raymond learned to listen, he said, when his mother was dying of cancer. In his daily visits during her final months, he got to know her a lot better by asking questions and listening to her responses.
Listening is powerful, he said. “People, they’re wired to tell their most intimate goals, desires, beliefs and where they want to be, and their passion. Imagine as a leader, you have the keys to somebody’s passion.”
If you want to be a great leader, Raymond said, show people they can have fun working with you, and understand that your job is to know employees and what motivates them.
The benefit of listening goes beyond team building. Raymond spoke of dark times after his mother’s death when he contemplated suicide. For years he never told anyone, but eventually opened up during an interview.
“There are people here in this room, or friends of people in this room, that are in hopelessness, and you don’t know. And that’s where intentional listening can save someone,” he said.
Students were eager to raise their hands and contribute when moderators asked questions of the crowd. Afterward, Raymond said he was very happy with the response from the group. He attributed it in part to how the SYLP event is designed. “They get people to realize that sharing and giving their thoughts is an important part of it.”
Most importantly, he hoped the young people in attendance came away understanding that fun is not a waste of time, but, instead, a core value and a character ethic. “Understanding fun is serious business,” he said.
Students seemed to pick up on it. In a panel discussion afterward, Howard High student A’Jaun Jarrett reflected that sometimes when a team might not have enough energy or focus, bosses can incorporate fun through competition or challenge.
Jarrett called the event an “inspiration booster.”
Another student, Mark Bennett from Devon Preparatory School in Pennsylvania, said one takeaway was that “You learn through failures, through uncomfortable, tough situations and coming out of our comfort zone. So that’s something that I can take with me.”
Early in the day, organizers kicked things off by mixing students who didn’t know each other. Together in teams made up of members from four or five schools, the students then analyzed famous figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafzai to see what character traits drove them. Then, select representatives of the different discussion groups shared their conclusions with the entire crowd.
Woodbridge 10th-grader Johnathon Morehouse, part of a downstate contingent at the event, was one of those who took the mic. It was a chance to push himself. He doesn’t often do public speaking like that, he said. “Everyone says that I’m outgoing and brave, and I don’t think I live up to that reputation. And I feel like I need to start taking initiative.”
The leadership event, which has taken place since 2016, has a compounding benefit as it influences lives, said Kristin Duncan, student panel moderator and director of national employee enhancement for Siegfried. “Our higher purpose as a firm is to help people transform themselves into better leaders, to exponentially improve their lives.”
She said the young people involved have really appreciated feeling they have a voice and are a part of the program.
“This is such a great example of us fulfilling our mission as an engaged university,” said Matthew Robinson, deputy director of UD’s Community Engagement Initiative. “The University provides resources and works with partners so that, together, we have a positive impact on young people. In turn, they get a chance to experience our campus and maybe envision one day seeing themselves here as a student,” he said.
Serenity Moore, a senior from Howard who hopes to be a social worker or therapist and help children, said she was a fan of all the passion displayed at the SYLP event. She likes being around people who are passionate and genuine, she added. “I like feeling that energy.”
Howard social studies teacher Patti Pyle said multiple students from their school had returned after attending the SYLP event last fall.
“I just love watching the kids light up when they see people who care and really want to see them be leaders and have a great future,” she said. Pyle also likes the way students are able to connect with people outside the school who are encouraging them and “reinforcing the same messages that we’re trying to teach them in school.”
Odyssey Charter School’s Work-Based Learning Coordinator Gerard Kelly, a first-time attendee, said the event offered a chance for the students to get real-world experience.
“We’ll definitely be back,” he said.