High school student Sally Young walks blindfolded through the corridors and elevators of the Chicago Hostel at State and Congress.

She was assisted by a youth volunteer also acting as her partner through several such exercises during the two-day training session March 9.

The goal of the exercise, part of a program to combat youth violence through positive student-adult and peer-to-peer interaction, was designed to instill trust among participants.

The exercise also was meant to illustrate how to have dependance on some individuals while acting as leaders for others.

Young, a 16-year-old junior at Michelle Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison, referred to the experience as a bit “nerve wracking.”

Young, however, felt it summed up her experience with MissionUnity perfectly: to learn how to get along with others and overcome differences that might otherwise lead to violence in schools.

MissionUnity is a partnership program between energy company Exelon Corp. and Play for Peace, an international nonprofit organization.

The goal of the two organizations was to launch a nonviolence, school-based program in four Chicago high schools, five grammar schools and two community centers, all led by actual students who serve as teachers.

Michelle Clark in Austin is one of the participating schools, along with Latino Youth Alternative High School, 2200 S. Marshall in South Lawndale/Little Village, Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western and Wells Community Academy High School, 936 N. Ashland.

According to a 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics, an estimated 5 percent of students aged 12-18 nationwide experienced a crime at school, mostly theft. But of that number, about one percent, or roughly 740,000 youth, experienced a violent crime.

Many such incidents, according to experts, involve peer-to-peer violence.

As part of MissionUnity, students learn how to impart exercises, similar to the one requiring Young to wear a blindfold, to teach students to work together for the common good of deterring violent outcomes.

“The play for peace program actually came to my school and my counselor encouraged me to take part in it because she felt I had shown leadership potential,” said Young, an aviation major at Michelle Clark High School. “I was one of only 20 students chosen to take part in MissionUnity. It was a challenging selection process that required us to fill out a questionnaire and be personally interviewed by the Play for Peace volunteers.”

Last year, Exelon sought out Play for Peace, internationally recognized for promoting nonviolent relationships among people of different cultures, to collaborate on MissionUnity.

It is the first program they have worked on that allows the students to take on the roll of educators. Since most youth are inclined to follow those within their own age groups already, the idea, according to organizers, was to create positive peer-to-peer relationships.

“It was Plato that once said ‘you can learn more about a person in one hour of play that one year of conversation,'” said Michael Terrien, executive director of Play for Peace. “I am a firm believer in that concept. Through working together and sharing a common goal, we can discover the dreams, desires and fears that we all share, and will probably exercises a stronger since of understanding for each other. This understanding will certainly impact the fears and apprehensions that lead to violence in the schools.”

The program officially kicked off in March. Volunteers and students first gathered at the International Youth Hostel at State and Congress. The program continues through April with high school students learning elements of cooperative play as tools for stopping cycles of violence.

During this period, the adults and teens also work to create the ‘larger-than-life-sized’ puppets for the final public performance in Millennium Park in the summer.

In May, they will move into the schools as MissionUnity high school students begin to teach their nonviolence workshops in the grammar schools.

“They use exercises dictating the importance of cooperation and team work to the children,” said Terrien. “They also conduct sit-down discussions allowing the children the opportunity to discuss how they would feel more included at their school. Students that feel included and involved with their school activities are much less likely to engage in acts of violence at their schools.”

The first season of the program will conclude June 9 and 10 with the puppet presentation, which also coincides with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs summer program “Art of Play.”

The youth have begun creating their puppets, which are made from scratch from materials such as paper mache, clay and paints.

For more information about MissionUnity, visit www.exeloncorp.com, www.playforpeace.org, or call 312/394-8011