Chamber youth program inspires tomorrow’s leaders

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Local students interact with local business owners and learn responsibilities of running a business on Workforce Development Day during The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County’s Student Leadership Council. Photo courtesy of The Chamber.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County is investing in tomorrow, beginning today.

Through its countywide youth program catered to high school juniors, The Chamber’s Student Leadership Council nurtures generations of inspirational leaders, preparing students in the present to succeed in the future.

Designed to develop professional and personal growth among high school students, The Chamber’s Student Leadership Council mirrors its adult counterpart program, Leadership Etowah. Leadership Etowah enlightens citizens to the county’s complexities through a series of educational sessions that present a myriad of perspectives, provoking consideration concerning a relevant topic the program selects as its focus.

As Leadership Etowah encourages participants to channel their gained knowledge into developing solutions for countywide issues and emerge as effective leaders in their own realms of influence, the Student Leadership Council welcomes juniors to discover and appreciate Etowah County’s significance at a young age – becoming leaders themselves in the process, equipped to carry the county (and themselves) into a successful future.

Interested juniors from all Etowah County high schools, both private and public, can apply to participate in the program. Once all applications are received, a neutral third party judges the submissions based on a grading scale to determine who is selected for that particular class.

Student Leadership Council introduces a wealth of understanding regarding the community, as students explore all facets of the county. Through interactive tours and specified sessions, students learn about essential sectors that ensure the county’s operation such as public safety, tourism, healthcare, nonprofit organizations, government, workforce development and arts and culture. While the annual program began with a lecture-based format, where over 100 high school students listened to various guest speakers, a reformation transformed the program into monthly opportunities where students learn in a more immersive manner.

“It’s not just sitting in a classroom and listening,” said The Chamber VP of Operations Will Mackey, who oversees Student Leadership Council. “Students get to be on hands-on, they get to learn, and they get to hear from people who actually do these jobs [in the community], who tell them about the education track or requirements for jobs they’re interested in. They talk to their local council and commission members and visit nonprofits. It’s really opened their eyes to different opportunities throughout the area.”

From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. one day a month, students delve into new worlds just a short bus drive away. In years past, Mackey took the students to Noccalula Falls to walk the trails, crossing the suspension bridge as City of Gadsden Parks and Recreation Director Jen Weathington discussed her job responsibilities and tourism’s impact on the area. Another former trip to Calcean Minerals and Materials, LLC showed students how the company creates renewable plastics from billions of imported oolitic aragonite sand originating in The Bahamas. Every month, as the topics rotate, Mackey surveys the students and asks them to consider the next topic and what they would like to learn more about.

“If a student says, ‘I want to learn more about being a chiropractor,’ then we’re going to call a chiropractor and line up a tour,” said Mackey. “It’s a mixture of general tours and custom tailoring each day to their interests. It’s about our youth learning about their county and communities in order to give them a place to call home, whether they stay here after high school or come back after college.”

Discussions with entrepreneurs, directors, CEOs, managers and elected officials give students the chance to converse with pillars of the community, witnessing the many roles required to provide services for residents. This interaction with various community leaders exposes students to different viewpoints and perspectives, giving them a broader perception of potential career paths and the importance of community involvement.

Student Leadership Council’s training seminars and activities hone each student’s strengths, fostering social responsibility and influential leadership skills in the participants. Among a collection of peers who exemplify Etowah County’s racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity, students bond over shared experiences while learning from one another, gaining a deeper sense of trust and respect.

Numerous volunteer and community service opportunities abound through Student Leadership Council, with several former participants earning internships, part-time and full-time jobs following the program’s completion. Mackey recalled past program students who gained positions throughout the county, from working at The Alley to an internship with the district attorney.

“Student Leadership has been one of the best things I have ever done,” said 2021 Student Leadership Council participant Caleb Smith, who now sits on the board alongside Mackey, Gadsden State’s Jessica Brown and Family Savings Credit Union’s Ashleigh Dean. “As a native of Etowah County, The Chamber has allowed me this past year to discover and learn things about my home place that I never knew. I’ve been able to build relationships with people I now call my best friends. Probably the biggest thing that Student Leadership has given me is opportunity. Through this program, I landed a job at The Alley, which has been nothing short of amazing. Student Leadership has been one of the best experiences of my life, and I am proud to have been a part of it!”

Mackey reiterated Smith’s emphasis on the new relationships students form while participating in Student Leadership Council. When students arrive on the program’s first day, they are often nervous, not knowing what to expect. The program’s first session focuses on icebreakers and personality assessments; fun and engaging activities where students can connect with one another in a welcoming and comfortable environment. Over the progression of eight months, students evolve further, and that short-lived shyness melts away.

“It’s funny, since the program ended, [students] will still go out and have lunch or dinner every week together,” said Mackey. “Students that didn’t know each other before are now friends and hang out. I enjoy seeing them grow from being kind of quiet and kind of nervous to being really out there – talking, engaging and asking questions.”

“Everything [with Student Leadership Council] is an adventure and it’s always really fun. I’m just lucky to meet the students every year, with their different personalities, and just really get to know them. It’s just great to see them enjoy this program and learn about the community while also knowing that we’re making a difference. I see these students when the program is finished, when I volunteer out in the community and they’re volunteering, too.”

“I love the new friendships I have because of Student Leadership,” said Camryn Blackwell, who also was invited to serve on this year’s board. “I had a blast with Student Leadership and The Chamber. It was such an honor to be able to be a part of the Class of 2021. I had such a fun time learning about the Etowah County area, and all of the great businesses and opportunities that are here.”

Student Leadership Council’s sessions culminate in the program’s graduation day, where participants give a brief speech detailing what they learned throughout the year and what the program means to them. Principals, counselors and parents are invited to the special ceremony, which Mackey described as an endearing experience. He remembered one student who shed a few tears during her speech, as she described Student Leadership Council as the highlight of her month, a place where she felt accepted and welcomed.

Immersive, influential and inspiring, Student Leadership Council educates through experiences, generating groups of young adults who recognize the value residing in their communities. As a catalyst for upcoming innovators, Student Leadership Council fosters friendship alongside commitment, joy alongside responsibility, and the hope that the future of Etowah County rests in steady hands.

“Who is going to fill our shoes when we’re gone?” said Mackey. “Who is going to be tomorrow’s leaders, tomorrow’s business owners, tomorrow’s president of The Chamber? At some point, these high school students are going to do that. It’s important for them to know, appreciate and love their community the same way we do. It’s a great way to get into schools and teach students that.”

“[Working at The Chamber and with Student Leadership Council] I have learned so much more than I thought I ever knew about the community. I didn’t know much about the community myself until I started working here. I realized really quickly that between Student Leadership and Leadership Etowah, it’s really important to get high school students to learn about their area and the opportunities here [for them]. It’s a great area. I love it here; I’ve been here my entire life and I’m not leaving. I love seeing the program improve and impact the community. We’re here to make that happen – to open their eyes and minds. We’re creating these leaders for tomorrow.”

The 2021-2022 Student Leadership Council Members include Glencoe High School’s Cason Arther and Mary Elizabeth Edmondson, Gadsden City High School’s Michael Connally and Uche Osuji, Etowah High School’s Creasap Densmore and Caden “Trace” Thompson, Hoke Bluff High School’s Ava Dodd and Mason Miller, Coosa Christian School’s Millicent Douthard and Matthew Wright, Southside High School’s Lane Falcon, Edwin Mendoza, and Jacob Strunk, Westbrook Christian School’s Sarah Guffey and Dillon Machen, Sardis High School’s MaKala Holland and Callie Ross and Gaston High School’s Randi Morgan and Emma Samples.

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