Eleven-year-old Joaquin Pasco's first big trip in the United States wasn't to Disney World for a vacation or New York City for a field trip. It was a sojourn to Washington, D.C., for a week of meetings, tours, reading and writing.

That's not a typical sixth-grader's idea of fun - but Joaquin hopes that his first Junior National Young Leaders' Conference in April will be just the first of many such experiences.

For the past four years, students from St. Mary's Institute in Amsterdam have been attending the national leadership conference in Washington, as well as one held in Albany during the summer.

The conferences invite students from all over the country to develop their leadership skills by learning about the leaders of the past; the gatherings also teach the youth how to have an impact in their own communities.

SMI's involvement began when science and religion teacher Bernadette Pecora saw a mailing about the conference and thought some of her students might be interested. After their first experience, the students came home with enthusiastic reports.

Now, each year, Mrs. Pecora elects a small number of her students to participate; each student gets at least one chance to attend during their time at St. Mary's Institute.

This year, along with Joaquin, Victoria Tambasco was chosen to attend the conference in Washington. Joseph Dylong will participate in the Albany conference this summer.

"I think all of my students can be and are leaders. Each year, more and more students are willing to go," said Mrs. Pecora. "I chose Victoria and Joaquin because I taught them in second grade and, since then, I've seen their growth and maturity. I knew they would be good examples for the other students."

"It was a really good experience. I'm glad she chose me," said Joaquin, a member of the student council who's active in extracurricular activities. "I was able to see a lot of things and make new friends that I still email."

He told The Evangelist that his daily schedule at the conference included meetings where the participants learned about aspects of leadership.

After that, they would tour area monuments honoring leaders who exemplified that quality, from the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument to veterans' memorials and the White House.

"The conference was good because it wasn't about brains or smarts. It was about the courage to stand up," said Joaquin.

The most important thing he learned, he said, was "respect. I had really been lacking that, but now I've learned to be the better person and not follow the bad behavior of others.

"There was a kid at school that was bugging me and we didn't get along, but now I know to be the better person and things have gotten better. I told him about the conference and now he wants to go, too."

Once students move on to high school, conference organizers invite them back. Joaquin hopes one day to be one of those students.

Mrs. Pecora told The Evangelist that she has seen the effect of the conference on her young charges and could not be more pleased with their personal growth.

"They came back ready to take on leading roles and they have new goals and ideas in social advocacy. They also came back more focused on academics and with a new level of maturity that you can see in their faces," she said.

At St. Mary's, social advocacy and faith already go hand-in-hand. Every other month, Mrs. Pecora organizes community service opportunities for her sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, ranging from working at soup kitchens to a recent visit to the neonatal unit at St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam.

There, they handed out blankets they knit themselves and letters for the new mothers, all in wrapped packages.

"Since they came back from the conference, they've wanted to do more, collect more, and to diversify what they do outside of Catholic charities," Mrs. Pecora noted. "They've looked into AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity. We're going to add at least one more project to the work we usually do."

"It's an experience I'll never forget," declared Joaquin. "It taught me that anything is possible. I can't wait to go back."