GREEN BAY – To inspire young leaders in Brown County, Packers Give Back hosted the fourth annual “Empower” event Jan. 17-18 at Lambeau Field, welcoming students from local middle schools to take part in a day of teamwork, learning and growing.
The first day of the event was geared toward girls and the second day was geared toward boys, with each day beginning with a keynote presentation to set the stage for a day of leadership development.
Rocket scientist Natalie Panek kicked off the event, sharing stories from her childhood that led to her chasing her dream of becoming an astronaut.
“Talking to young people, I feel like they have so much enthusiasm and drive,” Panek said. “To be able to share my stories and see if they can relate to the things I’ve worked on…hopefully that inspires them to want to be able to tackle big challenges.”
Panek’s presentation emphasized believing in yourself and persevering in the face of obstacles, even after rejection. She described getting an internship with NASA, but only after applying four years in a row and calling the director of the program to ask how she could improve.
“For me growing up, I wish I could have emailed an astronaut or asked an astronaut how they got where they are, and I didn’t have that at my disposal,” Panek said. “So it’s important for me to be able to put myself out there so that young women and young people can just email me and ask me questions directly.”
She also challenged the girls to pursue “peak moments,” the moments that make them feel the most alive and inspired, and she told the story of the time she built a solar-powered car to participate in a 10-day race across North America.
“It’s a great opportunity for (the kids) to hear inspiring words from someone who has struggled, just to hear what’s out there, even rocket science,” Jennifer Grunwaldt, a counselor at Lombardi Middle School, said following Panek’s presentation. “For them to be able to experience this and come to Lambeau Field and to just look outside themselves, it’s awesome.”
The next day, middle school boys heard from Olympic gold medalist Adam Kreek, who recounted stories of his time on the Canadian men’s crew team and his later attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to North America.
He emphasized that to be happy, people must prioritize relationships, self-awareness, their community and health, and that everyone needs each one to reach their own “gold medal moments.” Kreek also urged the boys to “dream big, act small, work hard” as they continue growing up and learning, and to carry those lessons with them into adulthood.
The keynote address on both days set the tone for the rest of the event, which included presentations about ending bullying from the United Way of Brown County, giving back to the community from NWTC’s Books ‘n’ Blankets for Pediatrics, and working as a team from the Einstein Project.
Each presentation was hands-on and interactive, with students making tie blankets for patients in pediatric wings of area hospitals and building marshmallow catapults out of Popsicle sticks.
Nelson N., a student from Franklin Middle School, said he learned a lot throughout the course of the day, especially during Kreek’s keynote presentation.
“I liked how he said act small and how those small events will build up to one big moment,” said Nelson.
Nelson also took away some big lessons from the United Way’s presentation. “I learned about how bystanders can make an impact with bullying, because usually a bystander walks away and wants nothing to do with it,” Nelson said. “But when a bystander steps in, it helps (to stop bullying) a lot.”
Ryan B., Mason M., and Eli S. from Wrightstown Middle School all said they enjoyed working together to build the marshmallow catapults, which challenged them to work as a team.
They also had the chance to make the tie blankets, and said they felt good knowing those blankets will go to pediatric hospital units and be used by those who need them.
Both days ended with the students writing an “I will” statement, pledging to create positive change in their homes, schools and communities. Many attendees promised to build up their leadership skills, give back more to their communities and become anti-bullying advocates.
Each student will return to Lambeau Field for a follow-up event in the spring to talk about the progress they’ve made on their pledges and how they’ve made their communities better.