The Ottumwa Courier

December 19, 2013

Leaders making a difference

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Coming up with an idea may require a creative person. But doing something with that idea takes leadership.

That's something taught at the Ottumwa Leadership Academy, but many of the students already know that. They're leaders from around the area working to improve their ability to make things happen. Part of that skill set involves getting others to help put a project into motion by inspiring followers.

Organizations partnered with the academy push for a better society. But the leadership school's parent, the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, likes to see results. So students will learn by doing.

This class of the academy is taking action in four different ways. One group is starting "Youth Organizing for Leadership Opportunity." Rachel Dilling and Tish Reck say their group will encourage volunteerism in Wapello County. They like the Silver Cord program at Ottumwa High School, where students can wear the cord with their cap and gown when they graduate.

But some research turned up some interesting facts: In many counties, 25 percent of students complete their town's program. In Wapello County, the number is 7 percent. But Dilling and Reck looked deeper than that. It turns out students in Ottumwa require 400 community service hours to get their cord. Other schools give the cords out for as low as 150 hours.

Maybe there could be a tiered program, or maybe some businesses could get together and offer a scholarship. At the time of their conversation with the Courier, the groups were still working out details. There's another idea, too: Opportunity Day, where various organizations needing volunteers go to a high school and have displays or demonstrations showing students what they'd be doing if they spent hours doing community volunteerism there.

A second group is calling itself "Ottumwa United." Schuyler Black and Doug Anderson want to encourage more than action — they want to see a change in attitude, too.

"Our focus is on neighborhood pride," said Black, "and bringing that back to Ottumwa."

He said there would be a central location where people interested in the betterment projects could get information on connecting with fellow supporters.

Anderson said one way to do that is to help neighborhood specific groups get organized.

"The needs are going to be different in one neighborhood part of town than another," he said. "When we create this association, this isn't just a one and done. We want to [foster] a culture of pride that will be long standing in the neighborhoods."

Lexie Farrell and Mark Clark explained that the third group is hoping to reach out in an effort to begin "Empowering Wapello County's Young Women."

"The sad fact is, Wapello County has a teen pregnancy rate that is 42 percent higher than the [average Iowa county]," said Clark.

"We thought about this the first day [of the academy]," said Farrell. "It not only affects the teenager, it affects [the community at large]."

Putting "Ottumwa First" is the plan of the fourth group, said Heather Ware and Ali Wilson. Ware says there are organizations that already encourage shopping in a specific area, for example, in a city's downtown area. Or that encourage shopping at the local mom and pop businesses. Ware called them "buy local campaigns." Wilson and Ware say they want to support the work of those groups, but they want people to remember Ottumwa, whether it's doing business with a big store or a small store, north side or south side.

"We know how impactful keeping dollars locally can be," said Wilson.

They said there's the impact of tax dollars generated. But there can be growth, too, when potential new businesses see that this is a community "supportive of our local retailers," they said.

Anderson said running these projects is going to "help develop leadership skills." And one of the the goals of the Ottumwa Leadership Academy is "to develop effective leaders for the betterment of our community."

The class agreed these are projects people can get behind especially because they are meant to help improve the area. That makes the students' jobs a little easier in getting followers motivated. Anderson said one of the sayings he likes states that, "Managers manage. Leaders inspire."

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark