Nearly 30 junior and senior high school seniors from the area gathered on Wednesday, August 24 to open the fourth course of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce’s youth leadership class.
The program was created eight years ago by Tammy Hodges, Jefferson County High School’s work-based learning coordinator, and Amber Dowdy, Thomas Jefferson Academy’s middle and high school principal, both of whom have ties to the Chamber’s already existing leadership program for adults had.
Both said they noticed that many teenagers, although very active in their own school organizations and churches, were unaware of many aspects of their own communities. Most don’t know who their elected officials are, the ins and outs of their local government, what local industry produces, and the opportunities that are around them every day.
“We were really surprised to see that kids from different areas didn’t know what the other end of the county had,” Dowdy said. “We had kids who had never been to Bartow or didn’t know what they were doing at Atwell Pecan. At KaMin, they know there is a chalk mine, but they don’t know how many job opportunities there are.”
Hodges said a key goal of the Youth Leadership program is to teach this group of juniors and seniors what Jefferson County has to offer.
“A lot of our teens didn’t want to come back to Jefferson County because they didn’t think there were any jobs or opportunities here,” Dowdy said.
“We wanted them to gain appreciation for their county while also developing some leadership skills,” Hodges added. “This is an opportunity for us to educate our community’s own future government and business leaders.”
The Chamber of Commerce runs the program every two years and invites juniors and seniors to apply. This year, members of the first class of youth leaders were part of the panel that interviewed applicants.
“It was fun to have her back,” Hodges said. “Many of them were in the last semesters of their studies and they enjoyed exchanging ideas and being here to talk to the current participants about what they have gained from the program and what they can expect from it.”
Youth leadership members visit local businesses and industries and meet entrepreneurs and government officials. Six meetings are held throughout the year in various towns across the county, and outside of these meetings, participants are expected to attend at least two local government meetings and one county cultural event.
“Our group is really big this year,” said Dowdy. “We have 29 participants in this class. In the first year we had 12 or 14. Companies help a lot more because they see it’s a great program. We’ve gotten better at that, too, and learned about various scholarship opportunities at colleges for executives. Thanks to generous donations and sponsorships from local businesses, we were able to offer two $500 scholarships, one at each school, for youth tour participants.”
At the class’s first meeting last week, Hodges and Dowdy spoke to attendees about interview skills, using social media properly, and how to present yourself when meeting someone for work.
“We spend a lot of time speaking in public, how to have a conversation without just talking about ourselves,” Dowdy said.
They toured some downtown businesses and met other business owners. Subsequent meetings will be held in Wrens, Wadley and Bartow where they will learn about economic developments, attend mock council meetings and meet elected officials.
“We have several who will be turning 18 in the next few weeks and will be voting soon. You have to take an active role and know who these people are and what they’re doing,” Dowdy said.
“Just last year a former youth leadership graduate ran for Wrens councillor,” Hodges said.
In December, the students will attend the chamber’s annual Legislative Breakfast and hold their own meeting with the county’s state and federal officials.
“It’s a great program and we’re excited about all the opportunities these students will have,” said Hodges. “We do this every two years. So if students are interested in participating in the future, current ninth and tenth graders can apply in Spring 2024.”
Members of the current county youth leadership class are: Jeyley Ambrosio-Ruiz, C’khia Beasley, Daisy Becerra-Agustin, Christopher Biggers, Carson Davis, Savannah Davis, Jackson Dowdy, Mary Dalton Dowdy, John Durden, Sara Gore, Mary Wilhelmina Hodges, Jacob Holt, Lexie Lou Howard, Zoie Irby, Anay Jhaveri, Samuel Lewis, Markayla Watts, Marti Ann Bailey, Annie Mays, Elijah McArthur, Will McNeely, Hannah Miller, Joe Miller, Rashad Nelson, Lydia Newman, Chandler Smith, Shelby Valduga, Whitney Wells and Destiny Wilcher.