To some, a straight D student trapped in an aura of darkness might seem like a hopeless case. But there is a seminar called the Hugh O´Brian Youth Leadership Conference (HOBY), that was willing to look past a student’s apparent present. Ryan Benett, a current junior at Susquenita High School, knows this to be true, for he was that lost teenager, pressed down by the hidden circumstances he faced.
HOBY evolved long before Ryan. Since its humble beginnings in 1958, over 500,000 teen, sophomores have participated in the conference which has helped form revolutionary thinkers. It began when esteemed actor Hugh O ́Brian set out to make a difference in the world after a trip to Africa with theologian and philanthropist, Albert Schweitzer. This trip inspired O'Brian to dedicate much of his remaining years to create and grow HOBY. He hoped to impact the lives of millions of high schoolers, and even dreamed that those teens would spread his teachings to thousands of their peers.
HOBY has grown and expanded immensely over the years. Now all genders are welcome, and conferences can be found across the world. I myself was able to attend a HOBY conference in Spring, 2019. This is where I first heard the story of Ryan. Since I was in the same group as him, I was able to hear and share his heartwarming and miraculous testimony.
Ryan described himself as a “fateless failure”. “My life was pretty grim, and I didn't really think I was going to get far in life.” His main goal was to graduate high school, but with low grades, even that vision seemed a blur. Nonetheless, It was a dream that meant a lot to him. Ryan’s father was diagnosed with cancer when Ryan was 7, and right before Ryan’s 13th birthday, his father passed. One of his father's last wishes was for Ryan to receive his high school diploma.
Seeking a fresh start, Ryan and his mom moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania. He described the move as extremely tough for him which only added to the torment Ryan was facing. He said, “watching him (my dad) suffer lead me down a dark path in my life.”
Ryan began to “face his inner demons” which were often too personal to share. Ryan was trapped in depression and no longer saw a way out. Often people did not understand the pain he was embroiling.
Overtime, Ryan realized he had to do something if he wanted to fulfill his father’s hope for him. He said, “through hard work and striving to be a better person I slowly improved.” Then Ryan was told about HOBY. His life was still far from perfect, but he decided to apply anyway. He wrote an essay “on my passions and how I aimed to move on from the things that plagued my past.” He wanted to form a new future, and his desire was fulfilled when he learned of his selection for the seminar.
HOBY took Ryan from being a straight D student to the point where he earned As. His schedule began to fill with meaningful activities, and he started to rediscover his faith. But unsure of what lay ahead, the night prior to the seminar, Ryan was almost in a state of indifference, neither anxious or excited. He had no idea that in less than four days, he would “̈fall in love” with HOBY. In that short amount of time, Ryan would take part in one of the greatest opportunities of his life. He instantly felt right at home. Not because he was just like everyone else, but because he was at a place where he could be himself. Ryan began to bond with his fellow ambassadors, and right away he learned invaluable leadership skills.
By the second day Ryan began to step out of his comfort zone. At the state Capitol he received standing ovations after delivering rebuttals during a mock debate. Ryan said that through each activity he began to have more passion for life, and even started to dream of a possible political career.
Throughout the rest of the seminar, Ryan was actively engaged with activities, community service, seminars, and dance parties! With the help of his new HOBY friends, Ryan carried the seminar’s invaluable lessons with him. He said, “we (friends from HOBY) share what’s going on with each other’s lives, and try to help each other achieve our goals.”
The last day of HOBY came, and Ryan was feeling an array of emotions. There was an hour for ambassadors to talk about how HOBY was impacting their life, and Ryan was hoping to speak. After he was ignored a few times, Ryan and our group joked that those who ran the seminar did not like him. This turned out to be far from the truth.
During the closing ceremony, it was announced that HOBY would sponsor two sophomores from the seminar to go to HOBY’s World Leadership Conference (WLC). It was the perfect story book ending when Ryan Benett was given a full scholarship to go to WLC in Chicago. It turned out his HOBY journey was far from over.
During the WLC Ryan became close with many people from all around the world. He also continued to grow his leadership skills afterwards saying “everything I do I will attempt to do it in the name of being a leader, not just for myself, but for my community as a whole.”
In an article, “The Freedom to Choose”, Hugh O’Brian talks about the unfairness of life and the power of nurture over nature. He goes onto say, “...But I DO believe every man and woman, if given the opportunity and encouragement to recognize their potential, regardless of background, has the freedom to choose in our world… Will he or she dare to dream the impossible dream? I believe every person is created as the steward of his or her own destiny with great power for a specific purpose, to share with others, through service, a reverence for life in a spirit of love.”
Ryan takes O’Brian’s words to heart. He himself has had to face much adversity, but with the help of HOBY, his joy in life has been restored. If Ryan would have met O'Brian he said, “I would only have two words for him; thank you. The creation of HOBY lead me down a path I never thought I could reach, and that is largely due to the decision O’Brian made decades ago.”
Ryan wishes many kids could experience HOBY. For those thinking of applying to the conference, or those who have already been accepted, Benett says, “embrace it (HOBY) to its full extent. It may seem weird at first, but it is something you will never forget… The kindness shown and the wonderful ideas shared let us know there is hope in the world.”