ASHLAND, Ky. — There’s a time for the high school juniors in the Ashland Alliance’s Youth Leadership program when “leadership” is no longer just a word but a goal.
For many it is their visit to The Neighborhood, Ashland’s one-stop social service coalition, said Missy McCalvin, the program’s coordinator.
Her theory is that the students see the reality of poverty and the importance of community cooperation to deal with its privations.
McCalvin remembers a Paul Blazer student, one of the 40 or so who participate in the program each year. He went home after helping serve lunch at the Community Kitchen in The Neighborhood, and announced to his mother that she was to prepare a vat of her hotdog sauce — the best in the world, he added diplomatically — and that together they would take it to the Community Kitchen for another volunteer session.
McCalvin has seen many such epiphanies in the 17 years she has coordinated the program, and they all signal the onset of a maturity that is its chief goal.
“They’re learning to act on their own, and that’s what we want. If they’re not self-starters at the beginning they will be by the time we get through with them,” McCalvin said Tuesday during one of the program’s monthly sessions.
Students are chosen for the program, which Alliance president Tim Gibbs calls “a class of self-discovery,” from all seven high schools in Boyd and Greenup counties. They meet once a month for the entire school day for an overview of one core aspect of the northeast Kentucky community.
“They’re getting a comprehensive, holistic view of the community and what makes it work at the same time they are making important decisions about their own lives,” Gibbs said.
On Tuesday it was arts and culture; the group of 44 students visited the Paramount Arts Center, where they took part in acting and dancing mini-seminars, the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center, where they soaked up some history and checked out the exhibits, and The Daily Independent, where they learned about the newspaper industry, past and present.
Over the seven months of the program they will receive similar exposure to local and state government, business and industry, and the world of social services and volunteerism.
They will travel to Frankfort and meet with Northeast Kentucky’s legislators next month.
“We’ve gone on so many tours and learned so much already,” said Russell student Bethany Bloss. “We’re learning the way things work here and in the rest of the community.”
Also over the seven months they will launch and complete community service projects. Work on the projects is done during the time between meetings, which requires the students to show initiative. “We’re not there all the time watching them,” McCalvin said.
Examples of notable past projects include a bluejean drive for Haitians after the devastating 2010 earthquake and a 5K run to raise money for a cancer-stricken teacher, McCalvin said. “The projects teach leadership and organization. It takes the group as a whole to make the project happen,” she said.
Entry to the program is competitive; each applicant completes an essay during the sophomore year that is evaluated in a blind assessment to eliminate bias.