Teens develop skills, confidence in young commissioners course

Two-week program offers lessons in leadership, local government
Jul. 29, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

What makes a good leader? According to attendees of the Lee County Young Commissioner Leadership Program, a good leader is analytical, cooperative, respectful, motivated, driven, able to communicate and a positive role model.

The teenagers, ranging from 13 to 15 years old, hashed out their definition of leadership Monday when the two-week Young Commissioner program kicked off at the McSwain Extension Education and Agricultural Center in Sanford.

Lee County Commissioner Kirk Smith gave the eight young commissioners a presentation on the duties and responsibilities of a commissioner and an in-depth look at how local government functions.

"There is quite a lot a county commissioner does and is responsible for," Smith said as he listed the numerous boards on which commissioners served. "You're going to learn a whole bunch [from this program]. Ask questions, seek out information and learn your responsibility as a citizen of the county, the city, the state and the country."

The Young Commissioner program started last year with a group of 12 teenagers, who volunteered to continue the program and who still meet with Extension agents every two months.

Extension Agent Bill Stone said last year's alumni spearheaded the program's second year and are largely responsible for its continuation.

"We learned a lot about public speaking and interviewing," said Keven Ramirez, 13, an alumnus of last year's program. "This year, we will learn even more. We are trying to expand — to inspire people around North Carolina. We hope to see the program move to other counties."

Program alumni Diana Garcia, 14, and José Cortez, 14, also were present and will help out as the program continues, along with a number of other alumni.

Stone said he was glad to see more teenagers get involved with leadership in the community and looks forward to working with this year's crop of young commissioners.

"As we get to know these kids," Stone said, "you kind of get a feel for them. We're going to push them throughout the next two weeks in various ways."

Stone said he believes the program is a valuable tool that helps teenagers learn things schools don't have time to teach.

Sylvia Churchwell, Extension volunteer and retired counselor for the Lee County School system, reviewed basic business etiquette with the young commissioners, including where to wear a name tag, how to properly introduce two strangers and how to shake hands.

"Make eye contact," Churchwell told the young commissioners. "And when somebody introduces you, you smile. You want to make a good impression, and it never hurts to smile at anyone."

Stone said it was always fun to see the young commissioners' reactions on the first day of the course and watch them change throughout the program.

"They have that 'deer in the headlights' look when they first get here," he said. "By the end of next week, they will be totally different people. It's amazing to see the confidence they develop. They start to understand that they can make changes in their community."

Smith said he enjoys helping the young commissioners learn more about their county and believes a working knowledge of local government will help them understand how their community works.

"We get to teach these youngsters how local government has an impact on their lives," Smith said.  "That's important."

Throughout the next two weeks, the young commissioners will get a tour of the Lee County Jail, participate in mock interviews, attend a county commissioner meeting, take part in National Night Out and more.

The program will run through Friday this week and end next Thursday with a closing dinner and celebration at the Carolina Trace Country Club in Sanford where the young commissioners will give presentations on what they have learned.