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A Passion Project: L.I.T (Leaders in Training)

Updated: Apr 13

By Dr. Kayla Hostetler - Aiken County School District


I have had the privilege of working with teenagers for many years as an educator and as a mentor of Aiken’s Next Generation Youth Leadership Network, a program of Write to Change and the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. The Aiken Next Generation program focuses on growing South Carolina youth as leaders and advocates. Youth participate in think tanks and develop actionable plans to make a difference in their local communities. Next Generation teens in Aiken serve locally as mentors to children, teens, and youth-serving organizations. They lead Family Literacy Nights, after-school sports and learning sessions, and serve statewide as resources to organizations involved in providing equitable opportunities for youth in low-income rural (and other) communities. NextGen Aiken youth are leaders in the national BLTN NextGen network, ( and traveling to conferences and workshops in Vermont, Window Rock AZ - Navajo Nation Headquarters, and to the Andover Bread Loaf NextGen site in Lawrence, MA. Aiken Next Generation leaders present at local and state educational conferences sharing their experiences with teachers and educational leaders. 

Serving as a mentor to these teens is my ultimate passion project. Each year, I get to witness amazing community projects and efforts created and implemented by teenagers. Past projects include a community resource fair and resource booklet, documentaries on issues within their communities, a memorial garden, family literacy nights, and youth after school programs. I have witnessed teens publish articles in educational books, speak to state and local representatives, and volunteer their free time daily to help their communities. My job along the way is to create a safe space for these teens, where they feel heard and not judged. I provide them with a space to think critically and help them when they ask for assistance. As an educator of fourteen years, I had to learn to give them the control and ability to make the decisions. I had to learn how to listen to them and encourage them to pursue the areas they are passionate about. Sometimes, I have had to let them fail at a task, so they could learn from their experiences. We all learn from mistakes, and this teaches us many lessons for our next endeavor. 

The Road to L.I.T.

For many years, teenagers in my area involved in Next Generation have grappled with how to help their fellow teens. They want to help those who seem to slip through the cracks, do not make it to graduation, or end up making devastating life choices. After one leadership trip, our current Next Generation students were discussing this topic, yet again, and I finally asked, “Y’all live in the same area and have made different choices and are doing well. What is the difference between you and your peers who dropped out or are in difficult situations?” After many of them shared their experiences, one recurring idea became apparent: They all had one person who supported them unconditionally and they had numerous extracurricular experiences at young ages. This discussion launched the beginning of their shared passion project. 

After a lengthy discussion, the teens decided that the answer was pouring resources and love into the generations after them. Ezekiel, a teenager who recently traveled to Santa Fe Indian School,  stated, “When I was at the Santa Fe Indian school two weeks ago, I was amazed at what the superintendent said. She told us that in her culture their goal is to pour all their resources and love into the youth. That they determine their success by the generations that come after them”. During his trip, he worked with indigenous teens and was able to attend a Feast celebration. Another teen, TerNautica stated, “When we visited Lawrence, MA we were amazed at their Boys and Girls Club. They do so many after school and summer programs for the youth there. It is like a spot those kids have every single day.” This conversation led to the creation of L.I.T (Leaders in Training). The teens decided that they were going to begin pouring into the generations below them in several ways. First they established a family literacy night with North Aiken Elementary and began volunteering at their after school program. Next they connected with Schofield Middle School to plan a mentorship program. Finally, they designed a summer program called L.I.T, that will begin this summer ( ). 

The Beauty of L.I.T.

The beautiful part of L.I.T, is that it is completely created and organized by teenagers. They have been working hard to prepare for their summer program and have already implemented many steps. As their mentor, I am beyond proud and hopeful. Teenagers want to be involved. They care about their communities. I have had the privilege of witnessing this first hand, year after year. As adults and educators, how do we help foster teenage leadership? Many of my current and former Next Generation members began as students within my English class. Through building a safe environment, building authentic relationships, opportunities to share their thoughts, and support for their abilities they transitioned into the Next Generation program. 

Through innovative programs, such as the Next Generation Leadership Network teens build confidence, leadership skills, collaboration skills, and contribute to their communities. They learn how to share their personal experiences and craft stories. They learn how to solve problems, conduct research, and turn their research into actionable steps. They develop the skills to be leaders today and in the future. As one of the founders of the network, Dixie Goswami, makes clear,  “Youth are resources to be tapped, not problems to be solved.” Our youth have many brilliant insights, creativity, and abilities. My question is as adults and educators, are we fostering and tapping into them? 

Getting Started With Your Own Passion Project

There are many ways to begin working on your own passion project. The first step is to think about ideas that you are very passionate about, or an issue/problem in your community you want to see changed. Once you have an idea, sit down and workshop the idea. What is the root of the idea or problem? Who is involved in the idea? What is involved in the idea? How does the idea manifest? After you have workshopped the idea, conduct some research. Find out what is already known about the idea. If it is a problem in your community, what solutions worked in other communities? You can also decide what is not working in your current community. After conducting your research, make a list of the organizations or people you will need to include in your work. Who will be part of your network? Then begin to create a timeline for your project. As you create your timeline, make sure to communicate and bring in the partners you need along the way. What needs to happen first? What is the most logical order to your work?  As you make your timeline, create a budget and list the ways you plan to raise money. The final step is implementing the timeline you created and collecting feedback. It is important to take time to reflect on your project as you go and make necessary changes based on needs that arise. 

Want to keep up with what L.I.T. and Aiken Next Generation has going on? Follow us on X at @Dr_H_Teaches and on Instagram @ aiken_nextgen


About the Author

Dr. Kayla Hostetler is an English Educator at Aiken High School who has been teaching for 14 years. She is the current President of the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English. She is the Director and Mentor of the Aiken Next Generation Youth Leadership Network sponsored by Write to Change. She is also currently a student of the Bread Loaf School of English. In addition, Dr. Hostetler teaches educational courses at local colleges. Her goal as an educator is to provide a welcoming, safe, and respectful learning environment for all students. It is her aspiration to facilitate the academic and personal growth of all students and empower them to thrive both scholastically and individually. 



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