LifeSmarts: helping young people become intelligent consumers

“What is one step that schools can take to prevent bullying?” “Awareness.” This question and our corresponding answer set into action of chain of events last year in the championship game of the Maine State LifeSmarts Competition that were unfortunate and largely out of our control. Judges debated, rules were changed mid-game, and questions were added. We went on to lose the State Competition by one question to United Technology Center, a career and vocational school near Bangor that serves seven area high schools. Our dream of attending the National Competition in Pittsburgh was dashed.

Rather than sulk in our loss, we used this event as impetus to return to the State Competition this year more prepared than ever. We revamped our team, appointing Nick Jenkins as our fearless captain and leader. Returning standouts Nick Wagg and Ben Lualdi provided depth and confidence to the team. New team members Leeza Kopaeva and Lydia Giguere brought energy and knowledge in core areas. Combined, we tackled the content areas with fervor and a desire to expand our knowledge.

LifeSmarts is a consumer challenge competition whose goal is to educate young adults to be intelligent consumers. Some of the material is immediately applicable, some will help in the near future, while others will help students long-term. The five core content areas are: personal finance, technology, health and safety, consumer rights and responsibilities, and the environment. The format of competition is in a game show style, with two teams competing against one another at a time.

For three months, we met each Tuesday morning and Thursday during lunch. Our morning sessions focused on working through previous years’ question sets and becoming comfortable with the style of questions and format of the competition. We rotated weekly who was responsible for bringing breakfast for the team; after all, a well-balanced breakfast is vital to academic success. Thursday lunches were dedicated to working through “topic calendars,” which reviewed the five core question areas in an open-ended fashion.

In a rather unconventional manner, we were crowned the winner of the Maine State LifeSmarts Competition without ever competing in person. A snowstorm cancelled the State Competition, and seeing as we earned the highest score of any team in the state in the preliminary online assessments, we were crowned champions. Our reward, an all-expense paid trip to the National Competition in San Diego over the end of April break.

Prior to departure, we completed two educational talks to lower and middle school students on the topic of over the counter medication. Our documentation of this experience and application of our knowledge provided the foundation for our OTC poster, which completed the first activity for Nationals.

We arrived in San Diego for the 24th annual LifeSmarts Competition to compete against 34 teams representing 32 states (Georgia had 3 teams, as two of their teams earned “wild card” bids). We were paired with a sister team from Liberty County 4-H in Georgia who served as our counterpart for the trip. Not only did we mingle and exchange gifts, but we chose to eat meals together, played laser tag, and spontaneously rode roller coasters in our free time. They were our cheerleaders and support network on site, and us theirs. As Ben Lualdi commented, “The best part of the experience was meeting kids from different walks of life from all over the country. The diversity of the kids and staff really opened my eyes to how the way that people live all over the country differs from me.” We left with southern friends and a big hug from the team, Ms. Gypsy (coach), and Vern (Gypsy’s husband, assistant coach).

After the first day of competition (the poster activity and a crossword puzzle with our sister team), we were in 17th place. And just as Saturday is moving day at the Masters, Sunday was our moving day in San Diego. Through four activities (SpeedSmarts, individual quizzes, and dominant wins in two buzzer competition rounds), we jumped all the way to 7th place! The year also came full circle on Sunday as the last question in our first buzzer round asked, “What is one way to prevent teen smoking?” In fashion true to his form, Nick Jenkins buzzed in, and through a giant smirk and muffled laughter, replied “Awareness….of the harmful effects.” Hilarity ensued as laughter erupted amongst our team and the judges accepted our answer. We quickly became known for our fast answers, laid back style, witty banter, and edgy tweets (follow our journey @207lifesmarts).

Monday morning brought our toughest challenge to date, as we competed against #4 ranked Rhode Island. Out of their five team members, four of them scored in the top five on their individual assessments. We had our hands full but we were on our game, answered confidently, and backed-up our twitter talk, earning a 130-115 victory. We were headed into uncharted waters in the round of 16 as a #7 seed, as no Maine team made it this far previously. I was in absolute awe. As Nick Wagg stated, “Our victory against Rhode Island validated all of the time we had put in. Through Saturday and Sunday we gained respect as one of the top teams in the competition. We were underestimated by no one.”

Our competition came to an end in the first single-elimination match against #10 seed Arizona. Arizona was patient on their buzzers and out-dueled us, earning a 90-135 victory to advance to the round of 8, where they lost to the eventual champions Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, with our heads held high, we debriefed poolside and planned our next excursion, thrilled with our 7th place overall finish. As best articulated by Leeza Kopaeva, “my sunburn and even our loss against Arizona were well worth it in the end. It was undoubtedly the best school vacation I’ve ever been on.” Or, as Nick Wagg called it, “the most fun eduvacation ever!”

Months of studying and practice paid huge dividends for us as we surpassed all expectations. The work that we put in ahead of time allowed us to arrive in San Diego and enjoy our time to the fullest. When we weren’t competing, which was about half of each day, we were out and about enjoying all that San Diego had to offer. We rented a hobie cat and sailed around Mission Bay (shout out to our skipper, Nick Wagg, and his first mate, Nick Jenkins, for a memorable journey), toured the San Diego Zoo, went on a “team run” around the bay, ate sushi on the upper-deck of a restaurant beachside as we watched porpoises (or maybe sharks) frolic in the ocean, lounged at the pool, and hung out on the beach in La Jolla. We enjoyed a variety of delectable cuisine, learned all about “culture,” and left the warmth of California a more close-knit and cohesive group. As summarized by Lydia Giguere, “I can honestly not remember the last time I have laughed this much for five days straight. Having the opportunity to explore a different culture and meet new people with old friends was absolutely amazing…it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.” Nick Jenkins echoed these sentiments, exclaiming, “This didn’t feel like a school trip. It felt like a family vacation.”

Next year, our “new family” will be vying for the title of “two-time Maine State LifeSmarts Champions,” as the 25th Annual LifeSmarts Competition will be held within the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Ben Lualdi will be returning as captain of next year’s team and we will be looking for four more members. If interested, please contact Steve Withers.

It was an honor and privilege to accompany this group of young adults on their educational journey across the country. As a fellow patron dining at the Operacaffe (a highly recommended Italian restaurant in downtown San Diego) put it, “Those kids are so mature and respectful. Be sure to tell them that I said that.” Additionally, a huge thank you to the Maine Jump$tart Coalition for funding the trip and making this experience possible.