ST MARYS — Leadership Elk and Cameron County 2019 is underway, helping to shape future leaders and support local businesses and organizations.

The leadership program, an initiative of the Community Education Center, was created after the Stackpole-Hall Foundation did a needs assessment in 2005-2006, finding a need for a dedicated leadership program, said CEC Executive Director Kate Brock. The program has more than 180 graduates, and 20 participants this year throughout a 10-month period.

Until two years ago, it was for those 18 years old or older, Brock said. Five high school students are participating this year.

Once a month, the students travel to different locations in Elk County and learn about local businesses and organizations, Brock says. In October for “environment and tourism day,” they visited Advanced Disposal in Kersey, the Elk County Recycling Center in St. Marys and the Cameron County Chamber/Artisan Center. Each day, participants also eat lunch at a local venue like Straub Brewery Visitor Center and Tap Room or the Ridgway Elks Lodge #872.

In December for “history and preservation day,” students will visit the Johnsonburg Community Center and hear from a few historical speakers, as well as take a walking tour of Ridgway.

The leadership program is a great way to show participants the opportunities in the Elk County area, Brock says. A monthly and annual evaluation is done on the students’ experiences, asking them questions such as “How likely are you to run for a political office?” or join a nonprofit organization board.

Wednesday was “communications day,” hosted at Elkland Search and Rescue’s facility on Brusselles Street. Each future leader read their “icebreaker” speech, and received tips and tricks from Elk County Toastmaster Cory Straub and Northern Pennsylvania Regional College Workforce Development specialist Terry Hinton. Students also critiqued one another. Community officials like City of St. Marys Community and Development Economic Coordinator Tina Gradizzi were in attendance as well.

This year’s program features a wide variety of ages, careers and goals. Many participants used humor techniques to start or continue throughout their icebreaker speeches.

St. Marys Parks and Recreation Manager Dani Schneider spoke about her love for natural disasters, the outdoors and state and national parks, adding she is excited to work with the community in her new position.

Kyle Gardner, of Weedville, spoke about how being a DECA Club member has shaped who he is today, including becoming a district representative. St. Marys Area School Board student represetnative Baird Bankovic spoke about a teacher who influenced his life, Mr. Henry, and his heavy interest in math, physics and rockets.

Penn Highlands Healthcare nurse Betsy LaValle spoke about how the experiences in healthcare have helped shape her, while Johnsonburg High School junior Jake Newman talked about how he looks up to his sister, is interested in state politics and hopes to do his Eagle Scout project on veterans. Participant Alex Garner has a passion for traveling and tourism.

Becki Taylor, who has faced much harder battles than her fear of public speaking, had much of the room in tears during her speech about overcoming a rare form of ovarian cancer. Taylor underwent two surgeries and 16 chemotherapy treatments, and talked about losing her hair and the overwhelming support she received from family and friends. She will be five years cancer free next year.

Straub commented on things like students’ vocal level during speeches, ways to combat nervousness, movement and “coming back” after losing composure.

“I’m really impressed with this class,” Gradizzi said. “You’re very well prepared, and each of you used some humor.”


Elkland Search and Rescue President Matt Young gave a presentation on the volunteer organization, including its history and duties. Volunteers have been building facilities and vans for the rescue from the very beginning. He also gave a tour of the facility, spoke about memorable rescue experiences, thanked the community for its support and stressed the need to gain and keep reliable volunteers.

St. Marys native, award-winning author and University of Pittsburgh at Bradford professor John Schlimm also presented on social media, encouraging students to use social media resources to promote businesses and organizations they are representing.

Schlimm, who is known for making things enjoyable, took students around the facility for a workshop, having them pose for photos on Elkland Search and Rescue vehicles and giving them examples of what makes a great and engaging post.

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