Adults Who Care

How KernYES! Reaches Youth in Kern County


One caring adult can make an incredible difference in the life of a child. Developmental research confirms that listening to, talking with, and being present for a teen increases his or her likelihood of becoming a productive adult, who in turn repeats a positive cycle of mentorship. 

What can happen when volunteers, motivational speakers, counselors, local Rotary Club members, known as Rotarians, and other people who care come together for the teens in a community? Kern County is finding out through KernYES!, which stands for Youth Empowerment Summit. The day-long series of workshops, motivational speakers and team building exercises that foster self-efficacy will host its third annual event on Saturday, Feb. 22nd.

Organizers Steven and Li Gibbs, with Tabitha Christopher (center)
This year’s KernYES! event will take place at The Fort, in Taft, a historical site known as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project completed in 1940 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

Four high school students in ninth, tenth and eleventh grade from each of Kern County’s 25 high schools will be selected to participate. School counselors nominate teens for consideration. Parents may encourage their students to check in with a school counselor to ask about being nominated, but they cannot nominate their children directly. A total of 140 students will be selected to allow for alternates. 

The Purpose of KernYES!

The mission of KernYES! is “to empower the hearts and minds of Kern County’s high school students to become models of character, leadership, and service.” 

However, unlike other community-based programs, it is not strictly geared to the two extremes within the typical school setting: top-tier students who exhibit leadership or low performing students who may be involved with intervention efforts and have access to specific resources. 

“What happens to the kids in the middle? They have the potential, but it hasn’t been manifested,” said Li Gibbs, a key organizer and Rotarian. “We recognize that middle child syndrome and fill their toolbox with tools to find the power within themselves to do better, to push themselves to go beyond what they’re doing right now. Sometimes, all it takes is a tiny little push.”

Rotarians’ Role 

The event is a collective effort that 13 Rotary Clubs help fund, organize, and staff, along with many other community organizations and sponsors. 

Despite that committed involvement, Rotarians’ role is somewhat different on the big day. 

“Rotarians aren’t there to lead. Facilitators facilitate. We have that role covered by some of the best mentors you could find for kids. What we’re there to do is to encourage,” said Gibbs’ husband, Steven Gibbs, a local attorney who has been involved with Rotary since 1991. He is a past president of the East Bakersfield chapter and currently serves as a Rotary board member.


Li agreed that the service aspects of the summit stand out, as well as the ability to spark positive change. “Our idea is to inspire. For every youth you inspire, a mentor is born,” she said. 

Fostering Community Service 

Steven and Li’s dedication to Rotary has personal and professional ties. One of the couple’s first dates was out at a Rotary event and both are involved as founding members of the KernYES! Project. They recognize students’ potential to help locally if given the chance. 

“So many kids are not taught about how gratifying it is to help their school and their community,” said Steven. “For me, it’s about giving back. I was involved as a youth in organizations like Boy Scouts back in the midwest, and as I grew older, different organizations. If we’re hoping for a better future for our youth, they need mentors, and they need to mentor each other.” 

Li saw proof of those concepts firsthand through her work at Bakersfield’s Centennial High School, where she helped more than 100 students involved in Rotary, with resulting community recognition and formal awards. “Kids that age want to do good but need someone to show them how,” said Li. 

Cultivating Empathy and Listening to Kids

Organizers are grateful for the help of sponsors and local supporters like Kern County Superintendent of Schools, Mary C. Barlow. Student transportation to The Fort is arranged for the youth summit at just the cost of labor for bus drivers and is free for participants who meet up in Bakersfield, and then take a 40 minute bus ride together on public school buses. Conversations unfold during that ride and friendships begin to develop from the beginning of the day. 

“Seeing each other as people at the heart of everything is really the goal,” said Li. “We all bleed red. There’s no reason for hatred. While kids are wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into for the day, we’re cultivating empathy and showing them they have nothing to fear when it comes to kids who come from other schools.”

Volunteers greet students, a PA system blasts music and the kids start their day with the kind of energy that characterizes the joy of youth. Four groups let students work in teams and they convene with all participants for speakers and meals. The day is structured with a focus on students’ wellbeing and includes four workshops: ethics, team building, diversity, and understanding. There are motivational speakers, including Bakersfield’s former Chief of Police, Lyle Martin, and nationally-touring success coach and author Tabitha Christopher; an awards ceremony rounds out the experience and a DJ ends the night with music and a lightshow. 

Through it all, that spirit of a human-to-human connection prevails, and that is what makes KernYES! a way to reach students at pivotal life stages. The only group session held behind closed doors broaches deep subjects like divorce, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. 

“I help lead that session and it does bring up a lot of topics that may be relevant for students at home. The love and empathy in that room feel palpable when we talk about what it means to have life issues that are serious and not always easy to overcome,” said Li, who also noticed the absence of student’s phones being taken out during the sessions. 

Summit organizers don’t take devices away or even ask participants not to use them, because screens simply haven’t been a problem, as the students are consistently engaged in what’s happening in front of them during the day. 


“We want students to do the talking and express themselves, as opposed to how they often are in school, where the adults are talking to them or at them and not listening,” said Steven. “We are listening. We talk all the time about how these kids are so distracted by their phones. Well, we are too sometimes, as the adults in the room. Really giving young people the opportunity to speak and to be heard lets them know they have a voice, and we are also paying attention.”

Connecting With Teens

The opportunity for adults to interact with young people is also an unexpected benefit for many of the volunteers. 

“Rotarians don’t always connect with high school students. A lot of service clubs are aging. We have to have a way to connect with students if community groups are going to be around for the next generation,” said Steven. “Most of our volunteers are surprised how energizing and how pleasant the kids are. No doubt, they go home exhausted, but it was worth spending the day with teens right here in Kern County.”

How to Help 

Additional volunteers at the summit and sponsors from the community are always needed. The program has no paid staff and relies on volunteer labor, reduced speaker fees and donated or discounted food and other services to make the day a success.

“All donations that go into it go directly to the kids,” said Steven proudly. “We absolutely want to thank every volunteer, every sponsor, and every speaker who has worked to make this program possible.”

Find more information about KernYES!, including how to volunteer, at https://kernyes.org/.

About Rotary International

Rotary International is a service organization with more than 1.2 million members and 35,000 clubs worldwide, according to its website, which sums up Rotarians’ commitment to world issues through local action on topics that range from hunger to economic disparity and vaccination to reduce disease.

“Rotary isn’t about where you come from or what religion you are,” said Li. “It has nothing to do with politics and is 100 percent about giving. You can go into so many places in the world and connect with other Rotarians, men, women, people from all walks of life who have community service in common.”

Find a chapter near you at www.rotary.org. 

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