WILDWOOD — Hundreds of students from throughout Cape May County learned new ways to be leaders in their communities and to better themselves Friday at the 24th annual Peer Leader Conference.
Kindness was the theme for the middle and high school conference at the Wildwoods Convention Center, hosted by Cape Assist and the Cape May County Healthy Community Coalition.
“Taking it a step past bullying and focusing on how we can be kind to the people around us and also to ourselves internally and externally,” Cape Assist Executive Director Katie Faldetta said.
The conference reached maximum attendance this year with 450 student representing 19 schools in the county.
Faldetta said each year the organizations survey the students in the spring to find out what is important to them and build the theme of the conference from the results.
“Better Me, Better We” was the message this year, echoed in the keynote speech from motivational speaker, stand-up comedian and author Matt Bellace, a resident of Princeton who wrote the book “A Better High.”
Students sang and danced along to AC/DC, Queen and Eminem and talked about how the music made them feel. Bellace told students they had a choice: They could use any pain or trauma in their lives negatively or positively.
“You have a choice and so does everybody back home at their school. What are they going to do with their pain?” Bellace asked.
Bellace also lamented the recent shooting that occurred at Pleasantville High School’s playoff football game.
“We’ve got to find a better way to express the anger, and you are going to lead us there,” he told the students. “You are the leaders who are going to step up and show us another way.”
After hearing from Bellace, the students split up into breakout sessions focused on the “Better Me” message on topics such as vaping, social media and video games.
Students who registered for the conference were encouraged to create and submit a picture or piece of art that embodies the concept of bettering the world through personal growth.
During the conference, all submissions were on display to be voted on by fellow students, advisers, coalition members, and the exhibitors for a prize.