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Rockdale students learn about community, peer influence

Rockdale Youth Leadership students, from left, Raye Brown, Maryam Joseph, Bruce Mitchell, Sojourner Butler, Jennifer Tindi and Jasmine Edwards share camaraderie at a breakfast honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rockdale Youth Leadership students, from left, Raye Brown, Maryam Joseph, Bruce Mitchell, Sojourner Butler, Jennifer Tindi and Jasmine Edwards share camaraderie at a breakfast honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Rockdale Youth Leadership participants, from left, Devin Payne and Sarah Michelson exchange glances during a getting-to-know-you exercise at the Rockdale Career Academy.

How do you groom the community leaders of tomorrow?

Organizers of the Rockdale Youth Leadership program believe it starts with exposing teenagers to the adults who function as leaders in the community today.

This year Rockdale County Public School educators pegged 28 sophomores from all three high schools to participate in the Rockdale Youth Leadership program.

Through the program, students tour various key sites in the county, meet with community leaders and learn what opportunities exist in Rockdale County, said Susan Paul Smith, director of the Supporting Tomorrow Achievers Rising to Success, project which funds the program.

"It gives them an overview of the community and how it operates from government to business to civic, how it all comes together," said Smith.

Students also undergo leadership training in which they learn communication skills and how to understand and appreciate differences among people, said Smith.

Educators hope that this first batch of Youth Leadership students become inspired to take on leadership roles in their schools, such as student council officer or club president, and also act as facilitators for future Youth Leadership groups.

The idea is a well-rounded leader will be able to influence fellow students for the better. It's a way to provide social and emotional support from the peer level, said Smith.

"Students listen to their peers," she said.

Their experiences could also build the foundation for the students' interest in wanting to serve Rockdale County when they become adults, whether through business or public service.

"Our goal is we want them to be connected and make a difference here, starting at our high schools," said Jeff Rogers, work-based learning and youth apprenticeship coordinator at the Rockdale Career Academy.

Rogers said teachers handpicked the students they thought showed the most promise in benefiting from the program.

"The students were nominated by their teachers or counselors for standing out, for having already shown leadership characteristics," said Rogers. "They have potential."

Since the program began in January, the students have attended an orientation, a retreat, and a breakfast with community leaders honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Next month, the group will join in a weeklong leadership camp, which includes a meet-and-greet with alumni from Leadership Rockdale, an adult version of the Youth Leadership program.

Also on the docket for the five-week program is a tour of the Rockdale County Jail, where they'll meet with the sheriff and watch a K-9 demonstration; a meeting with city and county government officials to learn how those entities function; a day of community service; a lesson about community organizations in the county; and a tour of Rockdale Medical Center.

The Rockdale Youth Leadership program is a collaboration between the Rockdale County Public School System, the STARS project (a community federal grant administered through the school system), the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce Leadership Rockdale Alumni group and the chamber's education committee.

"The students are very enthusiastic and seem to be enjoying the process and they're very eager to learn new skills and take them back to their schools," said Smith. "These are a great group of young people."

Applications for the next Rockdale Youth Leadership Program will be accepted in early summer. The program is open to students from public, private and home-school environments.

For more information, call Jeff Rogers at the Rockdale Career Academy at 770-388-5677, ext. 31303, or visit www.rockdale.k12.ga.us in early summer.