Volume LIXJanuary 2012Number 1

Masons Changing the Lives of Youth
An Interview with Bro. Thom Stecher, Program Developer and Director

Bro. Thom Stecher, Thomson Lodge No. 340, Paoli, founded Thom Stecher & Associates to empower students, support educators and encourage parents to achieve their highest level of potential and build healthy communities. One of Bro. Thom's many programs is the Masonic LifeSkills Conference.

What inspired you to develop the LifeSkills concept?

In 1989, I read an article by then-Grand Master Robert L. Dluge, Jr. The article focused on his beliefs that our children needed more skills to be successful in life. I said to myself, "We can do that!" It is a core belief of mine that we all need skills of respect for self and others; responsibility for everything we think, feel, say and do; and healthy relationships to be successful in life.

When you created the LifeSkills concept, what made you so certain that it was the correct formula for a successful program?

Since 1972, I have been absorbed as an educator in the research, practices and experiences of kindergarten through 12th grade social emotional learning, character education and team and community building. I knew from experience as a teacher, counselor and state administrator that young people needed to develop skills to cope with the changes in their lives. Research clearly indicates that when we address the social and emotional needs of students, their academic skills increase, attendance improves, behavior improves, performance on standardized tests improves and their prospects for constructive employment increase.

What criteria do you deem most important in selecting your conference staff members?

My first priority is to select a staff that loves children, particularly adolescents. The staff must be kind, caring, willing to work very hard and have lots of energy. They must be role models and mentors with a servant leadership mentality. The staff cares about helping children grow to be the best that they can be, rather than focusing on awards and accolades. The primary staff is drawn from education, counseling and psychology professionals. Our volunteers are often affiliated with Masonic organizations, as well as education and human services. Our counselors in training are young adults who have a passion for service and whose goals are in education and human services.

What are the strengths of this program? If it has a weakness, what is it?

The primary strength of the program is the dedicated staff of caring professionals and volunteers. One strength that I am most proud of is our ability to serve a part of the "special needs" population. This past year, our conference had students with cerebral palsy, blindness, ADHD, autism, Asperger's syndrome and mental health concerns. Our population also represents a great many races and religions.

My only concern is that we only have one conference a year. After 12 years, so many students want to participate beyond the two-year limit. I wish we could find the resources to fulfill this need.

Can you relate one or two individual LifeSkills success stories that particularly affected you?

Our largest success is that school administrators, teachers and students leave the LifeSkills Conference with an experience and a plan of action to make positive change in their school buildings and districts. I personally have been involved with schools that have used our program and philosophy as the springboard to start leadership programs, mentoring programs, anti-bullying programs, service learning programs and character education programs. There are countless stories of children's lives being transformed during this week. On a very personal note, to have mothers, fathers and grandparents come to me at the end of the conference and tell me that their child has completely changed for the better because of the Masonic LifeSkills Conference is a very humbling experience.

This year, on a Wednesday night after a large 130-person community building activity where everyone succeeded by helping each other, I watched two children walk into Memorial Hall together, hand in hand, one child with cerebral palsy the other with fetal alcohol syndrome, smiling from ear to ear knowing that they were no longer just what people had labeled them to be. Instead, they knew that they were respected, responsible members of our Masonic LifeSkills community.

Having just completed the 12th consecutive conference, what do you envision for its future?

I hope we can continue to grow as we expand through Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic states. I hope we can continue to serve young leaders, including those with special needs. I hope our program can grow in Pennsylvania and beyond. My vision for the next 10 years is to positively impact every school district in Pennsylvania through our Masonic LifeSkills philosophy.

How can a lodge or an individual Mason become involved in the program?

Sponsoring the costs of children is our greatest need. The Pennsylvania Masonic Youth Foundation (PMYF) is very generous and sponsors 50 percent of the individual cost for each first-time participant and 20 percent of the cost for a repeater, but many cannot afford to attend without help.

If you would like to volunteer to work this conference and are willing to submit to a criminal background screening and provide references, please contact Bro. Tom Labagh or Amy Nace at the PMYF office at (800) 266-8424, ext. 2. Or, feel free to contact me or view my website at www.thomstecher.com to see how we can work together to help young people.

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