OMMS students learn about citizenship at camp

CHELSEA – More than 100 sixth graders at Oak Mountain Middle School camped at Hargis Retreat in Chelsea Oct. 17-20 learning how to be better citizens.

Emily Hudson, who has been involved with Project American Life since 2001 and the director since 2003, said the four-day program teaches about 1,200 students a year important lessons about civics and character education.

“They learn what it means to be an American and that responsibility going forward,” Hudson said.

Attendees come from schools across the state to a program that is unique in the United States.

The program is for sixth grade students, of which there are 112 at Oak Mountain Middle School.

Over the course of four days, students participate in lessons and activities inside and outside, as well as in small groups.

“Project American Life rekindles America’s founding principles by inspiring young people to understand and appreciate our Founders’ noble ideas, sacred honor and ultimate sacrifices—thus compelling a new generation to uphold these standards in all aspects of their lives,” reads PAL’s mission.

Though the program is run through most schools’ social studies departments, the curriculum covers everything from science to music, OMMS teachers Susie Nobles and Carla Higginbotham said.

“It’s about being a good person—being a good citizen,” Higginbotham said. “It’s something our school really believes in.”

The teachers said they see a difference in the students after they attend the program, such as respect shown during daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Project American Life also gives the students opportunities to work together and interact with their teachers outside the classroom.

“They get to see us in a different way,” Nobles said.

Activities are focused on three core questions: Who am I? (students learn that their value is not in what they have but who they are as individuals), What am I? (students discover there are unique gifts and responsibilities that are an inherent part of being a human being) and Where am I? (students examine what it means to live in America as well as their greater place in society).

Students maintain a journal during their time at Hargis Retreat and submit it at the end of the week for a grade.

Students also learn non-academic lessons, through requirements such as cleaning their tables after meals.

Hudson said it is often remarkable to see the students’ transformation from the beginning of the program to the end.

“They really are more thoughtful and more grateful and maybe a little bit better human beings than when they got here,” Hudson said.

OMMS fifth graders visit Camp McDowell, so their time at Hargis Retreat is not their first time to stay away from home, as it can be for other campers.

Students are kept busy almost the entire time they are not sleeping, Hudson said, so there is usually not much of an opportunity for them to experience homesickness.

Students begin their days shortly after 7 a.m., and programming usually lasts until about 9 p.m.

Students pay for their participation in the program individually, though some schools hold fundraisers to offset the cost.

The Shelby County Commission and Shelby County Board of Education support PAL and allow for scholarships for hundreds of students each year.

PAL’s staff of part-time employees varies depending on the number of participants. OMMS students were split into 12 teams with a staff member for each team.

For more information about PAL, visit ProjectAmericanLifeAlabama.com.

Schools wishing to contact Hudson about taking part in the program should call (256) 454-2204.

View and purchase photos at ShelbyCountyPhotos.com.