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Attention, freshmen and sophomores! What you are about to read may change your life -- or at least change your outlook on the community you live in. Just ask any of the 47 members of the Youth Leadership Erie County class of 2005.

Youth Leadership Erie County, part of the Leadership Buffalo organization, is a nine-month program for high school sophomores and juniors in Erie County designed not only to cultivate leadership skills, but also to educate students about our great community and all it has to offer. And the best part about the program is that participation is free!

Never heard of YLEC? Chances are, you are not alone. This 15-year-old program may be one of Buffalo's best-kept secrets.

Beginning in September with an overnight retreat at Cradle Beach Camp, Youth Leadership Erie County lasts until May. Monthly day sessions, which take place on Thursday afternoons, focus on the various aspects of our community, including criminal justice, cultural diversity, the arts, human services, and economic development, just to name a few.

This program brings together virtual strangers who share one thing -- a desire to cultivate their leadership abilities, in order to become more responsible, well-informed citizens of Erie County. At the end of this nine-month journey, participants forge and develop long-lasting friendships with new, exciting people.

Samantha Nephew, a sophomore at Lafayette High School, can attest to this fact. "Because of YLEC, I've met so many people from so many different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Throughout the year, we've become so close. Without this program, I would never have gotten the chance to meet so many great individuals."

"The goal of Youth Leadership Erie County," says director Cyndi Horrigan, "is to develop civic engagement in our young people. We want them to become aware of the world around them, and most importantly, the good things happening right here in Buffalo that they may have overlooked. Our desire is to the make the participants better citizens, whether they decide to stay here locally or move to another region."

YLEC is not just about leadership. Through the day sessions, participants are exposed to new ideas and experiences. Jason Byttner, a junior at Eden High School, was surprised at how much the program has both taught him and exposed him to. "For me, YLEC was all about expanding my horizons and learning about the wonderful opportunities the Buffalo area has to offer. I've gotten to participate in so many fun activities as well. Where else would I have been able to visit the Buffalo Arts Studio, go to the top of City Hall, or learn how to African dance?"

Combining fun and education is one of the things Youth Leadership Erie County does best. Just ask Chrissy Hunt, a junior at Nardin Academy. "Everything we do is fun and enlightening. Many of my experiences at YLEC have opened my eyes to different people's perspectives and to the different aspects of our community." The highlight of the program for her was a visit to the Erie County Holding Center. "I found it fascinating to see our criminal justice system in action."

The bottom line is that Youth Leadership is one of our community's treasures. "It is a great chance to get out of your comfort zone and meet other kids, while at the same time broadening your perspectives, broadening your experiences, and broadening your leadership capabilities," says Horrigan. "We aim for growth at both a personal level and at a social level."

Interested in YLEC? Youth Leadership Erie County is accepting applications from current freshmen and sophomores who will be sophomores and juniors in the 2005-2006 school year. Applicants do not need to be a leader right now, but they must show potential to develop their leadership skills.

Applications, which are due May 13, can be obtained from the Leadership Buffalo office at 237 Main St., Suite 1500 in downtown Buffalo, Leadership Buffalo's Web site,, or by contacting Horrigan by e-mail at or by telephone at 849-2626, Ext. 16.

For anyone thinking about applying for YLEC, Byttner has this to offer: "Take the first step and apply. At first, I was nervous and unsure whether YLEC was right for me. But now, looking back a year later, I'm so glad that I participated. After all that I've learned and after all the great friends I've met, how could I possibly regret it?"

Michael Blake is a junior at Canisius and a member of Youth Leadership Erie County.