Sitting in a circle, PB&J youth staff members practiced an experience-sharing exercise with Starburst candies. They later did the exercise with their campers at the nonprofit PB&J Leadership Training Inc.'s Leadership Camp 2012, at Camp Lee Canyon, on Mount Charleston, in late July and August.
Even their feedback about their past years of PB&J camp experience was a group effort.
"It's by kids, for kids," one youth staffer said. "And that just makes it so much easier to get in touch with our campers and let them know, we understand you."
Another girl raised her hand. "It gives you a chance to realize, when you do feel alone, you're not alone," she said.
Many of the youth staff members - seniors or recent high school graduates - have been PB&J campers. So has the nonprofit group's co-founder and president, Michael Palmieri, in a way. The camp, a focus of his attention for 25 years, draws middle schoolers and high schoolers from all over the valley "up the mountain" for an infusion of high energy.
In addition to meals cooked by a professional chef, items on the menu this year for roughly 150 students and staff members in Lee Canyon included leadership, substance abuse awareness, "positive peer pressure," campfires and a speaker roster that included NASCAR driver Taylor Barton and Miss U.S. Galaxy Brittany Williams.
Middle schoolers, ages 12 to 14, attended week one, July 28-Aug. 4. Week two, Aug. 6-11, was for high schoolers ages 15-17.
Palmieri, a native Las Vegan, was a founding member of PB&J's forerunner, the Valley High School and Southern Nevada chapters of Students Against Driving Drunk. He participated in the group's first summer youth camp, as a camper, in 1987. He said he has attended every camp since then.
These days, he is teamed up with PB&J director David Wright, a Schofield Middle School teacher and winner of "Distinguished Educator" and "Teacher of the Year" awards in the state and the Clark County School District. Wright has provided creative input for the camp and trained the youth staff for approximately a decade. Palmieri focuses on business and logistics.
"We found that if you give the kids the skills to be productive leaders in their community, they don't have the time to get into drugs," Palmieri explained. "They've got so much other positiveness going on in their heads."
Having taught school district drug classes for the last 10 years, Wright added that it's the best preventative effort he has ever joined. Moreover, the momentum doesn't stop at camp. Activities continue throughout the year, keeping camp "family" members in touch with one another, whether at the post-camp dinner at the end of October, or a barbecue.
The goal is to provide a continual flow of drug-free, gang-free activities. But another benefit - especially of the week spent on the mountain without cell phone service - is that kids learn how to communicate face-to-face and carry that into the community.
Wright said the transformations have been enormous. That includes the girl who came to camp hating everything about school - and then, after camp, went on to become student body president. Another student turned down a Caribbean cruise to return to camp and put in 500 hours of community service over two school years. Many go on to pursue school and church leadership roles and college.
PB&J has inspired leadership in other ways. The fee per camper has stayed at $200, about half of the actual cost, only with help from the community. One example: Zappos.com paid all camp food costs for both weeks this year. It also provided 10 scholarships for at-risk middle schoolers.
When it comes to the success stories made possible by such generosity, Palmieri said, "It's the norm for these kids, rather than the exception. And that's what I say amazes me. I'm in awe of these kids."
For more information about PB&J, go to pbandjleadership.org.