Grain Valley High School junior Ben Totta felt right at home as soon as he was greeted at the HOBY Missouri seminar in June.
As soon as he arrived, a HOBY representative helped grab his bags and walked up to the front of the building at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
There was a line of HOBY staff members there to greet him as they yelled: “Hey! Ambassador!”
“I was immediately greeting like I was the most important person on the planet,” Totta said. “Which to me you don’t get everywhere. It makes you feel special and loved.”
After the seminar was over, Totta ended up being the one chosen out of 107 students as the lone Missouri representative to receive a scholarship to go the World Leadership Congress in Chicago, which took place last week.
His counselor and one of his teachers at Grain Valley High School recommended that he apply for the Missouri HOBY seminar after he wrote an essay about making changes to education in the United States.
He was one of the five finalists for the scholarship, which completely caught him off guard as he wasn’t expecting to receive it. He was selected to be the Missouri representative through votes from his peers and a series of panel interview questions.
“At the end of the closing ceremony, they announced I won the scholarship, which was amazing,” said Totta, whose only expense was the plane ticket to Chicago.
HOBY, which is stands for the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation was founded in 1958 and the conferences began in 1967.
Hugh O’Brian, a famous actor at the time, known for portraying Wyatt Earp on television, was asked by Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer to come with him to Africa to serve a community. While there, O’Brian learned about serving people in need, what was going on in the world and what he could do to change it.
Schweitzer put his arm around O’Brian at one point and asked him, “What are you going to do with this?” Then he came back to the United States and established HOBY to help youngsters come up with ideas of how they can help people and change the world.
The conferences Totta attended inspired him and changed his life, he said. When he went to the Missouri seminar, he was one of two Grain Valley representatives. Students spent three days there learning who they were as a person, group leadership and serving the community.
“We learned something called true colors to learn what your identity type is,” Totta said. “I am green, which means I look at things more logically. I was also on a team called the Thundercats and was all about superheros. We talked about how we fit in a group and how the different true colors mix with each other.
“The final day we focused on how you serve the world and represent yourself. During that time, for some reason, I stood out among the crowd. The theme was making change for the better.”
When he was at the World Leadership Congress, the theme was The Gold Standard. "They wanted to know who you were as a person and acknowledging what your values are.”
Attendees heard a speaker from the Kids of the Block program in Chicago, a non-profit organization founded by Diane Latiker, who opened up her home to troubled youth and helped steer them away from negative influences.
This often led to her getting children out of gangs. She helped them with their homework at school and worked through problems they were having in life in general.
This even led to to her life being threatened by gang members for “taking away some of their members.” She’s been assisting these children for nine years and now has served 100 of them at her home.
“It’s incredible,” Totta said. “They were able to build a facility for it now they told us what Kids of the Block does. We hear about the crime that happens in Chicago and she knew what it was like growing up there....
“She went to this lot where there was prostitution and drug dealing going on. And she set up a mobile basketball there and she had an AK-47 held to her skull. It’s amazing work what this woman does and she doesn’t even bat an eye about it.”
That wasn’t the only thing that influenced Totta at the conference. There also was a non-profit organization there called Feeding Children Everywhere, and the 300-plus students at the congress assisted the organization in packing 50,000 meals in an hour.
“Everyone had a role in that and everyone was important,” Totta said.
The students at the congress did other community service work. In Totta’s group, nicknamed “G4,” it went to Humboldt Park, a community on the west side of Chicago, and assisted with some landscaping work and spread mulch around trees, picked up trash and painted some buildings in the area.
Not only did Totta learn the importance of serving communities, he met people from all over the world and the nation, and made some new friends along the way.
“It’s not hard for me to gain relationships with people,” Totta said. “But meaningful ones … aren’t super prominent in my life except for my family and a few close friends.
“HOBY has given me the opportunity to meet new people. I met a gentleman from France named Dan, a girl from Salt Lake City named Katie, a girl from Florida named Grace and gentleman named Clinton from Hong Kong. These people I have never met in my entire life that I have never spoken a word to and I love them now. They are my family. You can’t put into words how close you become with them in a week.”
Because of the experience he had at the event, he decided that he wants to campaign at schools in the Eastern Jackson County area to hold fundraisers so other students can have the opportunity to attend the international congress.