HAINES CITY – If there’s one thing that every city wants to have, it’s plenty of young people coming back from college, eager to move back to the community they grew up in.
“When they go off to college, we hope they will remember us and come back to Haines City and say, ‘Hey, this is where I can come back and raise my family, and support my family here,’ ” said Betsy Weddington Aycock, executive director of the Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce. “In any city, that’s key to getting them to come back.”
A critical component of that, she added, is having jobs those graduates can find when they return after graduation. That’s why, for the past decade, the Haines City Chamber has been sponsoring its Youth Leadership Program to connect the best and brightest students to the businesses that create the local jobs.
“It’s the 11th year we’ve done this,” Aycock said, “and we always have plenty of student who apply, and we only take 12 students. The fact that we always have an abundance of applicants to choose from, that shows the program is still going strong.”
Likewise, the program’s strength is demonstrated by the commitment of business owners eager to work with those students through the academic year.
“Bringing in business partners is key,” Aycock said. “It’s imperative to bring in business partners. Having business owners being partners with the schools, that’s key to our success.”
Since 1998, more than 156 students have participated in this year-long leadership program, which serves up to 12 eleventh grade students. It started when a group of Chamber volunteers developed the program to raise awareness among the high school students about career opportunities in their community.
Each fall, students with a history of volunteer activities and a high academic performance get selected from dozens of applications, and start a nine-month curriculum that exposes them to the inner-workings of local, county and state government, as well as Haines City area businesses. Students travel together to different venues each month for an entire day of hands-on learning.
With the school semester ending for the summer, the Chamber just held its annual Youth Leadership luncheon at the Providence Golf Club and Resort, honoring the students and teachers who played a vital role in making the program a success this year.
“We had a large group of business professionals there this year to celebrate both the students and teachers, and the students all said they were sad to be graduating,” said the current leadership co-chair, Jenna Register Emerson, who is also a veteran of the program and graduated from it in Leadership Class II.
“They all wanted to know if they could come back next year,” she said. “They are a phenomenal group, and every year we are always impressed with the group of kids we get.”
The program takes applications from the high schools, and the two chairs, Emerson and Jarod Pratt, interview the students and select the chosen candidates. Then for one day a month, the students meet at the Chamber office on U.S. 27, and travel to the county government offices in Bartow, or to the businesses participating in the program.
And as Aycock noted, part of their goal is to encourage students to give serious thought to returning to Haines City after they graduate from college, and settling down here. By participating in the Youth Leadership Program, they get to meet with the presidents and owners of prominent local companies, putting them in connection with possible future employers. They also get to see, behind the scenes, how these businesses operate.
Aycock said the large number of student applications they get each year is a clear example of the program’s success.
“As long as we have the abundance of applicants, we’ll keep going strong,” she said. “If we were struggling to beg the students to apply to be in the program, that would be one thing, but we’re not. We go to the schools and we interview the students, and they are always interested. Then we expose them to different areas in business, government, media and culture, to expose them to what is available here. The business have agreed to allow these students in, and take the time to talk to them. It’s great for the students.”
The students recognize that as well, Emerson said.
“We’re helping create young leaders,” she said. “They’re definitely present in this county. They’re proud of the people in the high schools.”
They’re also able to see, she added, that there’s a future for them in Haines City.
“That’s one thing I tell the kids—you’re now connected to the people who are influential and could end up hiring you down the road,” Emerson said.