CALUMET CITY | As the lone senior on the Thornton Fractional boys volleyball team, Gilbert Conley knows he has to be a leader and take charge.
Off the court, the T.F. South student is involved in a couple of clubs in which he and his classmates take charge. Conley is a member of the Cultural Exploration Club and is also president of The Friends of Rachel Club, which is named after Rachel Scott, the first person killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
"We want to stop bullying and keep the high school experience a positive one," said Conley, who is a rather imposing figure at 6-foot-1. "If someone is being bullied, we try to help them and tell the people who are doing it to stop."
Conley loves learning about various cultures and and helping to break down stereotypes about different ethnic groups.
"What I learned is, while we all have different (ethnic) backgrounds, when you talk with other people, we are the same," Conley said. "Nobody is any better than anyone else."
He said the club recently took a trip to Chinatown in Chicago.
"(It was a) great cultural experience," Conley said. "I enjoyed it, and you had a chance to really ask questions. It is amazing what you can learn from others."
Conley has always been willing to learn something new. That's how he got involved with volleyball -- he said a gym teacher asked him to try out as a sophomore.
"I thought it was a cool sport, but I didn't know (District 215) had a team," Conley said. "I figured I'd try out and I made the team. I have really enjoyed playing volleyball."
He is the only senior on a struggling team, but Conley said the squad improve.
"My job is to make sure everyone knows their roles, and to go out and do my job," Conley said. "We'll get better. We have some younger kids out, but they are trying and I have to keep my focus and set that example."
Conley will attend Calvin College in Michigan, where he'll play basketball. He wants a career in either economics or international finance. In the summer of 2009, Conley traveled to Europe and stayed with a family in Italy.
"(I had) a great time and I learned a lot about culture," Conley said. "The family I stayed with was just great. I know we ate well and ate lots and lots of pasta."
He said he visited the Coliseum in Rome and took in the sights.
"The architecture is amazing," Conley said. "Everything is so old, like falling down, but still standing."
On the court, Conley said last year he realized his potential.
"I made honorable mention all-(South Suburban Blue) conference and I didn't think I was that good," said Conley, who is a middle hitter. "This year, I want to get better and lead our team to at least get a win in the regional."
Thornton Fractional coach Peg Haney said Conley has been helpful with the younger players.
"He works with the other guys to help them improve on their skills and their play," Haney said "He is a competitor -- he doesn't like to lose."