Maegan in Washington
Maegan in Washington
When a fellow participant got homesick during the Junior National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C., last month, 11-year-old Maegan Stewart of Malta took to mothering him.

"We said, 'It's OK; you'll be home soon. We're going to have a lot of fun and you won't even think of your parents,'" recalled Maegan, a parishioner of St. Mary's in Ballston Spa and a recent graduate of the parish school.

Maegan also saved the day by bringing the only alarm clock among her three roommates during the six-day trip and maturely handled cranky peers when working in groups. "Now I know what other people have to deal with when I'm like that," she remarked.

The incoming Ballston Spa Middle School student was nominated for the conference along with three St. Mary's peers thanks to academic achievements and leadership potential. She's a multi-sport athlete, a Girl Scout, an altar server and a youth theater company participant, and she participated in several school clubs.

No comfort zone
She was the only nominee from St. Mary's to attend. "You need to step outside your comfort zone and try new things," she said.

The conference, sponsored by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, introduces more than 250 middle-schoolers to the concept of leadership throughout American history through educational activities, presentations and tours of relevant sites. Maegan had already displayed a lot of the leadership traits she learned about there - character, communication, teamwork, goal setting, respect and problem solving - but the experience still benefited her.

For instance, she said she has character because she helps her younger brother with homework and watches younger children when she goes to her babysitter's home. She's also set the goal of becoming a hairstylist when she grows up, and she's decided to show more respect to her elders.

"I can probably be more happy and helpful than grouchy and lazy," Maegan mused. "If there's something important going on and I'm bored [with] it, I'll try to stay awake. [And] I'm more responsible now. I could do more things on my own."

Many stops
The trip included visits to the Maryland Science Center at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where the students stayed overnight, as well as to the Newseum, the U.S. Capitol, the outside of the White House, the National Museum of American History and national memorials.

The children also traveled to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to learn about radical abolitionist John Brown and reenact life in the years leading up to the Civil War. Maegan played a "newspaperperson;" other students played priests, doctors, jailers and even a Grim Reaper. The group later debated whether they would follow the leadership of Mr. Brown.

Many hours during the conference were spent in "leadership focus group meetings," debates or journaling in classrooms where the students stayed in Chevy Chase, Md. They also heard from Mary Beth Tinker, the Vietnam War protester who sparked Tinker vs. Des Moines, a 1965 landmark Supreme Court decision upholding students' constitutional right to free speech.

From her, Maegan learned "how to stick up for your own beliefs." She said she hasn't had many opportunities to express this yet, except when it comes to her Catholic faith: When public-school students teased her on the school bus about her uniform, she said, "They're comfortable and there's really nothing wrong with my school. It's just like your school, but we learn about Jesus and God.

She gets it
"They think that we [go] to church every day and we pray 24/7," Maegan said. "They don't understand it at all."

St. Mary's School taught her "how to respect people [and] the Golden Rule. If you don't like somebody, you don't have to be a snot and mean to them."

Maegan likes altar serving because "you get to take action" at Mass. Parishioners' compliments make her "kind of feel special." She said her faith influences her decisions "not to swear - because it's hurtful to God and Jesus and everyone around you - and not to do certain things" like skip Mass purposefully.

In fact, Maegan said her family goes to weekly Mass "to be refreshed for the next week and to thank God for all that we have. If God wasn't around, then none of us would be created. Nobody would be kind and loving and forgiving. The world would be a mess without God's love.

"A lot of people have love and some of the people are the opposite," she continued, advising, "Just be nice to them and say, 'Hey, do you want to come to church with me?'"

Maegan will automatically be eligible for more leadership conferences in the future, which excites her.

"I got to go everywhere without my mom," she said. "It was fun. I thought it was going to be like school, but we got really into stuff."