A new program launched by a Mitchell native is hoping to get youth more interested in community leadership.
The program, the Brookings Youth Leadership Academy, is the brainchild of Sarah Meusburger, a 2001 graduate of Mitchell High School who lives in Brookings. The first-year summer program brought kids in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades together with local community leaders who talked on an array of topics regarding leadership values.
It’s an idea she came up with when she realized that children often take advice more closely to heart if it comes from someone other than their parents.
“I’m a parent, my oldest child is 11, and that’s right at the cusp of where your children start feeling as though their friends are more important and tune their parents out,” Meusburger said. “It takes a village to raise a child, and if any other adult shares info with a student of that age, they’re going to receive it differently.”
When the Brookings Public Library held a strategic planning meeting and invited people to express what the library means to them, one of the themes raised jumped out at Meusburger, who is a member of the library board of trustees.
“One of the themes of our discussion was that the community library should not only be a building, but it should absolutely be a part of the community. That’s when I brought up the idea of youth leadership and wanted to push ahead with that project,” she said.
She began organizing the project, seeking out speakers from the local business community and local government. She arranged for 10 speakers -- all of whom volunteered for the project -- to speak on various topics. A speaker addressed the group every week for 10 weeks and encouraged participating students to engage each other on the topic. Nine of those 10 presentations were held at the Brookings Public Library, she said.
Meusburger said the speakers offered a wide range of topics, ideas and encouragement. And the students responded, Meusburger said.
Speakers for the first year of the program included representatives from the city of Brookings, South Dakota State University and officials from local businesses such as Daktronics.
Bringing in real-life government and business leaders is a good way to put a face to their titles and remind the youth that people use leadership skills on a daily basis wherever they live and work.
“I started with the mayor and through my discussions with him and being a longtime Brookings resident, I just drew on my own network of people,” she said. “But you don’t have to have a fancy title to demonstrate aspects of leadership.”
Students were generally familiar with the concepts presented, she said, but being able to interact with the presenters allowed for a more in-depth study and analysis.
The first year saw 15 kids take part in the program, which Meusburger said is a good start.
“I was really happy. Honestly, with the volunteers we had and our community sponsors, our recognition event was so full we had to bring in more chairs,” she said.
She approached local businesses seeking sponsorship for the program and was pleased to find an eager group ready to help. A sponsor even called her at the last minute asking to be included. That’s a reflection of the type of South Dakota community response one can often expect when seeking support for youth programs, Meusburger said.
With the first year of the program behind them, Meusburger is already starting to plan in hopes of another round for the project next year.
“I plan to get feedback from those who participated and see what we can do to make it better next year. Already people are coming up to me and asking to sponsor or be speakers. If the community support is still there, I would love to have it again next year,” she said.
Gov. Kristi Noem became part of the support for the project when she issued an executive proclamation declaring the week of Aug. 11-17 as South Dakota Youth Leadership Week. The proclamation will hopefully bring awareness to the idea and help it spread to other communities.
Meusburger said she has received inquiries from people in Sioux Falls and Madison who are interested in starting similar programs.
Sonya Moller, director of the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is aware of the idea and looking into the possibility of bringing something similar to the community, but there is considerable organizing to do before such a project could launch.
“We have started conversations around the concept and idea. We believe it needs to be a community approach and we want to make sure we have all the appropriate organizations in that conversation if we’re going to launch something of that magnitude,” Moller said.
Meusburger is excited at the prospect of another year for the program in Brookings, but said any community could benefit from the concept of exposing youth to the ideas and experience of established community leaders. Mitchell is one of those communities with a lot to offer in the way of successful business people and government leaders, she said.
“If it’s good for Brookings, it’s good for other communities. There are wonderful people in Mitchell who would be phenomenal speakers, as well as community sponsors,” Meusburger said.
That can only help establish those important ideals and skills in the youth of the community, allowing them to take those lessons with them as they move into their adult years.
Even if it has to come from a source other than their parents, Meusburger said.
“I don’t see that there’s any downside to talking about these topics with the adults in our community, just to give them a little additional perspective. And to support their parents, who are trying to instill that in them,” she said. “It’s a tough age to engage with, that’s for sure.”