Shoulder to Shoulder helps Eagle County kids work and learn life, ethical leadership skills |

Shoulder to Shoulder helps Eagle County kids work and learn life, ethical leadership skills

Shoulder To Shoulder partners local students with non-governmental organizations around the world, for field studies in which students get a ground-level view of life in poverty. It's designed to build ethical, empathetic leaders, says founder Bob Bandoni. Here, they're helping build an orphanage in Tibet.
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VAIL — Lots of people want to be in charge, but very few are ethical leaders.

“Despots around the world can be miserable to people. They’re self-serving and do not see themselves as part of the ecosystem that we call society,” Bob Bandoni said.

Bandoni, a legendary local educator, is running Shoulder to Shoulder, a local program that puts kids in places they would not normally go, to do things they would not normally do. The goal is to create ethical leaders.

“When people discuss leadership, they automatically default to politics. That’s just a small slice,” Bandoni said.

“Ethical leadership combines a global perspective with an aim of social responsibility, but across sectors,” Bandoni continued. “In business, in education … sure, also in politics and law … whatever it might be.”

Shoulder to Shoulder is an organization of partners across four continents that create field studies in ethical leadership.

“True leadership begins with empathy, seeing the world through the eyes of others,” Bandoni said.

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Growing leaders, growing hearts

Shoulder to Shoulder is a small, growing group with a huge, growing heart.

So far, it’s sent 500 kids around the globe. The organization takes 10 to 12 kids on a field study. It started with about 30 kids a year the first few years. Now it’s up to 100 — 10 kids on 10 field studies.

“We don’t take students on trips. Trips have their place, but it’s critical that we create an educational context,” Bandoni said.

The mission was always to prepare young people to be active, ethical leaders and members of society, particularly a democratic society.

Bandoni said democracies are inclusive, not exclusive, and we are stronger together than we are divided. The object is to help organizations around the world and also help local families achieve more than getting the right sticker on the back of their car.

“I’m trying to inspire their moral imagination, so that they see themselves as ethical leaders. If you can see it, it’s no longer theoretical. It’s not just a political science class,” Bandoni said. “We are trying to demonstrate the impact, the transformative nature of programs like this.”

Helping where you can

There’s a program that provides birth-to-career help for girls. Shoulder to Shoulder students help build hostels to house girls, so those girls have a place to stay, so they can go to school. Otherwise they could not. They also built an orphanage.

It’s just one of dozens of field studies they do.

“The work they do is transcendent,” Bandoni said.

Shoulder to Shoulder work is transcendent for the kids, as well as Bandoni and his colleagues — so much so that they chucked their careers to do this.

“The kids who came back from these experiences described a transformation of world view that was so compelling, that a few of us decided to make some pretty big shifts in our lives, take a chance and start this nonprofit,” Bandoni said.

Show high school kids crushing poverty, and they want to do something about it.

“It’s what inspires and empowers them to see themselves as what we call ethical leaders,” Bandoni said. “Alums are constantly talking about empathy; that leadership begins with seeing through the eyes of others, knowing their stories.”

That becomes the mission of Shoulder to Shoulder, Bandoni said.

“It seems a natural extension of the work I was doing at Vail Mountain School,” Bandoni said.

The Big Idea

More and more philanthropists are trying to get at what they call The Big Idea. For Bandoni and many others, The Big Idea is leadership, in particular, ethical leadership.

“We have plenty of people who want to be in charge. Ethical leadership, to me, is the most fundamental place to start,” Bandoni said.

They look at things through the five lenses of the organizations with whom they work around the world:

• Economics

• Politics

• Culture

• Geography

• Ethics

“The idea is to understand the work and vision of these leaders and to understand the context. That’s why it’s so important to be on the ground and in that place,” Bandoni said.

The next step

Along with sending kids out into the world, Bandoni wants to bring kids here.

“The next step is to bring schools in from other continents, doing the programs with groups integrated from around the globe,” Bandoni said.

They’re also bringing corporations and philanthropists to the table because empathy and ethical leadership are good business.

Profit, planet and people each can enhance the others. Companies can bolster its bottom line if it takes care of the other two legs of that stool, Bandoni said.

“This is our way of bringing to the table who we think the stakeholders are — schools, philanthropists, businesses and nonprofits — creating a shared value,” Bandoni said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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