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Youth Leadership Buffalo: A place for progress and growth

There are plenty of young adults making a difference in our community.

During a time in their lives when anything seems possible, they’ve decided to reach out and find out what their limits truly are. Being young means having a blank canvas with which they can paint whatever they desire.

While it’s important to make the most of the future, it’s imperative to capture the essence of the present moment, as well.

There are many people in the Greater Buffalo area, and many would love to help a neighbor or two, given the opportunity.

Cultivating leaders

Leading the way is a local organization called Youth Leadership Buffalo (YLB). An extension of the influential adult “Leadership Buffalo” program, YLB focuses on cultivating the next generation of Buffalo’s leaders.

The program illuminates what our city has to offer, and shows how young people can get involved. It encourages young people to keep up on communitywide issues, and to develop a difference-making mindset.

Once each month for 10 months, the group of about 50 students meets at a different location in Buffalo. There, they listen to speakers, learn the gist of what various organizations do, and immerse themselves in a new environment. Topics such as economic development, social justice, arts and cultures, diversity and entrepreneurship are explored.

By the end of YLB’s year, each student is expected to demonstrate that they, too, can make difference. Students work in groups on service projects to leave their own unique marks.

Emphasis is put on inclusion and giving back. The program seeks to broaden the mindset of each participating student, and draws from high schools all across Western New York.

Traditional in-school events don’t often venture into the city, and they rarely teach about the roots of our local culture. Thus, participating students jump at the opportunity to advance their leadership capabilities and connect more with their community in the process.

Making a difference

Jenna Luehrsen, the Youth Program manager and a graduate of Leadership Buffalo’s 2013 Rising Leader class, knows precisely what it takes to become an influential leader.

A bright young businesswoman in her own right, Luehrsen wants to give students more than just a solitary experience to take with them. Life after high school can be daunting at first, so it’s important for students to be prepared.

“The program develops a sense of volunteerism and giving that hopefully will last a lifetime,” Luehrsen says.

The ultimate goal is to retain driven individuals who genuinely appreciate Buffalo. Youth Leadership Buffalo works to supply young people with the educational know-how and eye-opening revelations they can use to flourish.

“Being exposed to leaders in the community, and working on service projects helps grow the students’ leadership skills,” Leuhrsen says. “It creates awareness of community issues, appreciation for diversity, and a commitment to lifelong community service.”

By bringing together some of the area’s finest students, YLB is a veritable center of progress. Because it accepts no more than two or three students from any school, the group is extremely diverse, including students from a wide range of backgrounds. Participants come from urban, suburban and even rural parts of the Buffalo Niagara region.

“Youth Leadership Buffalo affords students several opportunities during the program year,” Leuhrsen says. “First, it allows them to interact with students from different walks of life than themselves, from a socioeconomic perspective, ethnicity and geographic.

“Second, it builds awareness of what we have to offer in Western New York, something they may not have gained during traditional high school activities,” she continues.

And last, she says, it helps lessen the local brain drain.

“We’ve had several students tells us that their original plan was to go to college out of town and never return,” she says “They now see all we have to offer and plan to come back and continue to make a difference.”

Leadership Buffalo has the ability to show Buffalo’s youth what our city has to offer. It functions almost as an intermediary between education in school and reality.

Teenagers who have experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have are more likely to stick around, Youth Leadership Buffalo officials believe.

Through YLB, young people travel to places they’ve never been, and while in the city they’re not just told how they can impact the area, they are shown. Rather than sitting in a classroom all day, students leave their comfort zones and try something a little different.

What students think

YLB participants are eager to learn and develop. They want to make a difference, while striving toward a successful future of their own. When it comes to Youth Leadership Buffalo, they know they’re in the right place.

“I think a big thing would be learning how to connect with other people,” says Clark Jordan, a City Honors School sophomore.

“It helps you make connections with the community,” agrees Drew Shine, a junior at Williamsville East High School.

“I feel like it helps you work as a team,” says St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute senior Kelechi Chillis-Ihenko. “You work with other people to complete a common task.”

When asked what his favorite experience was, Kelechi emphatically replies, “HarborCenter for sure. I’d never been there before.”

“We’ve been able to go to a lot of different places,” says Keith Norwood, a St. Joe’s sophomore. “Just learning more about Buffalo, (that’s what Leadership Buffalo helps with) … There are not a lot of programs like that in Buffalo.”

“I really like the last place we went. I’m a huge history nerd, so the Theodore Roosevelt Inauguration Site was pretty cool,” says Maggie Zaifert, a junior at South Park High School.

Leading the way

By lighting the path to an outstanding future, YLB makes an impact in more than one way. By aiding in the development of budding young leaders, YLB strengthens the roots of the community. Likewise, it ensures that some of Buffalo’s most gifted individuals have a way to connect more deeply with their community.

How to get involved

Tuition for Youth Leadership Buffalo is $750. Some scholarships are available.

Application submissions for the next graduation class are being accepted until by May 27. If you or someone you know would like to get involved, learn more at http://www.leadershipbuffalo.org.

Landin Murphy is a 2015 graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster. He is currently enrolled at SUNY Empire State College.