March 2016: Nonprofits Today

Youths excited to invest in our region

Max DelSignore

Max DelSignore

The question made Harrison Fish pause for a few moments.

“What are your thoughts on being a community leader as a high school student?”

As a senior at South Jefferson Central School, Mr. Fish has served in a variety of extracurricular clubs. Community service is a likely requirement for his participation. His perspective has changed slightly in recent months though, as he and his classmates engage in the “LEAD Your School Challenge.”
The Northern New York Community Foundation’s LEAD Council launched the “LEAD Your School Challenge” project last fall. The young professionals cohort designed a competition to cultivate and instill a willingness in school students to volunteer in their community. Three local districts — South Jefferson, Alexandria and Copenhagen — decided to join the challenge. Students from each school are asked to outline an action plan to address specific community needs, collaborate with local nonprofits to execute the plan and craft a final presentation describing their experience. Each school is eligible for up to $10,000 in grant funding for their district. The LEAD Council will assess each school’s community experience and determine the grant awards this spring.

To Mr. Fish, playing a pivotal role for a better community has a different meaning now. Upon digesting the question, he shared his greatest discovery from the competition.

“The challenge has been an experience totally based on the students,” Mr. Fish said. “We created the ideas. We executed the plans. Organizations are calling us. We are the ones taking control and making a difference. We have been acting as adults, and some students participating in the challenge are only in seventh grade. It’s been just a great experience.”

What Mr. Fish and his peers are demonstrating is that the next generation of leaders is already here. The key is nurturing their energy and ambition with meaningful civic activities. It is a responsibility of our area’s adult leaders to continue embracing local youth in real-life experiences to cultivate a stronger appreciation for the north country.

The “LEAD Your School Challenge” is serving as a developmental vehicle for these students. For some, the project is their first foray into true community philanthropy. They may garner financial support at a grassroots level to support local nonprofit agencies. Many are eager to volunteer to just help someone else. It is more than hearty competition. These students are taking ownership in enriching their region.

“There are so many diverse voices in these groups working toward a united goal,” said Stacey Eger, LEAD Council member and a Lewis County native. “The groups are so ambitious in reaching out to all needs. It brings me back to an idealistic view of what community is truly about and what we can be as a community.”

Personal investment is what has made the north country great. Sincere leaders emerge when their vision centers on a holistic belief in thriving communities. What matters today is revealing to our youth the strengths and weaknesses of where they live. Listening to their voice is vital in the discussion about our region’s future.

With the “LEAD Your School Challenge,” Alexandria Central School students are collaborating with a local agency to create a mentoring program for local youth. At South Jefferson, students established a co-op model on campus to engage extracurricular clubs in assisting nonprofits through activities and fundraisers. Hospice of Jefferson County and the Watertown Urban Mission are two beneficiaries of their work.

The community around Copenhagen Central School has dealt with heartache in recent years, following the suicide of a former classmate. Senior Sydney Greene and her peers were determined to find a solution through education. They are engaging at least two nonprofit organizations to present and raise attention about mental health issues during the school’s spirit week in mid-March.

“Tragedies shouldn’t happen within your school and community,” Ms. Greene said. “This was a great opportunity to bring in services, training and awareness for our school.”

A leadership bridge is still under construction. After-school clubs like student councils and National Honor Society chapters offer a plethora of volunteerism opportunities. The Youth Philanthropy Council at the Community Foundation introduces to high school students the core values of philanthropy and provides insight into the mission and purpose of area non-profits. Programs linking professionals such as LEAD and the Jefferson Leadership Institute widen the lens surveying community perspectives and local needs.

To build a lasting bridge of leadership, the generations must be fused together. You can add this to the evolving list of community needs. The “LEAD Your School Challenge” is proof that the north country’s youth are enthusiastic about investing where they live. South Jefferson freshman Noelle Lennox may have articulated this need best reflecting on her challenge experience.

“I haven’t been a leader,” she said. “I’ve helped here and there, but we became leaders as a whole. There isn’t one set leader. We are all leaders.”

Max DelSignore is assistant director of the Northern New York Community Foundation. He is a lifelong Northern New York resident and former sports journalist. Contact him at Nonprofits Today appears every month in NNY Business.