Teen volunteer debate coach turns middle school students into champions

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In less than two weeks the best young speakers in the country will be right here in the metro area competing in the nation's premiere speech and debate tournament. Many local champions will be among them including a group of middle school kids from a Kansas City charter school. And this week's Reaching 4 Excellence Fox 4 Young Achiever has taken them under her wing to get them prepared for the biggest contest of their lives.

Excitement's been running high for weeks at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy. After another very successful year for the urban core school in the Debate-KC League, 15 Tolbert middle school students have qualified for the National Speech and Debate Tournament.

"I have to prepare them now so they are not just blind-sided from all the competition that they're out to get," said Fox 4 Young Achiever Kara Smith.

Kara is their secret weapon. She excelled in speech and debate when she was a student here.

"She was a great student in my computer class," said Tolbert Academy teacher and debate coach Bill Lindsey. "And then she asked to join the debate team. And she teamed up with a young man and they took the debate world by storm."

After Kara left Tolbert and went off to Truman High School in Independence, MO where she lettered in speech, debate and mock trial and stayed very busy with academics and numerous activities, she started to return to Tolbert regularly to help Lindsey sharpen the skills of the kids Kara calls her 'Debate Babies'.

"I do this because I want them to be great," said Kara.

Kara comes here twice a week, often running practices herself, and she usually brings other high school debaters her age to help.

"She's very good at what she does," said Lindsey. "She's a leader. I knew that right away."

There's no coddling here. Kara really puts the Tolbert kids through their paces, challenging them to do better research, to be smarter and more creative and to be ready for competitions more rigorous than their city league and when they leave Tolbert.

"I did well here," said Kara, "and I won a lot of award when I was here. I have my little medals at home. But when I got to high school, it was a totally different ballpark. I know exactly what they're doing. I know the tactics. I know how to teach them for when they go to high school."

Kara doesn't get paid for doing this. It's strictly volunteer service, a lot of it. And she covers her own travel expenses from Independence into Kansas City's urban core. Her reward, she says, is in the success of her 'Debate Babies'.

"They're little 'me's', said Kara with a big smile. "I see me in every single one of them. They're all going to do well when they get older. And they can't do it on their own."

"It's priceless," said Lindsey of Kara's contribution and her impact on the Tolbert debate students. "She is a role model. She comes in. She gets them excited. She's doing it because of the heart. She wants to give back."

And now as Kara sends off her debate babies to their biggest test yet, she's proud of the champions she has helped them become.

"What I like about it is that I'm watching them grow as debaters and that they are not the same kids that they were when they first came to debate."

Kara won't be with her 'Debate Babies' at the national tournament later this month here in the metro area. She's moving to Georgia with her family and then starting at Alabama State University in the fall on a track to go to law school.

The National Speech and Debate Tournament starts June 15th and runs through the 20th. High school students compete at the Overland Park Convention Center in Overland Park, KS. Middle schoolers will be at Shawnee Mission North High School also in Overland Park.

Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

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