Twice the number of sessions per year, twice the leadership skills learned and twice the fun.

Perhaps the most important thing — twice the number of students served.

Two members of the Community Foundation of Jackson County’s board of directors saw value in Leadership Jackson County’s youth leadership program, YoJack, and liked the concept of teaching kids about philanthropy.

They were interested in expanding the program so the message could reach more seventh-graders in the county.

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The result was seed money for a second session of YoJack this year and in 2018.

Beyond that, the Leadership Jackson County board of directors will work to secure funding to ensure it continues to thrive with two sessions per year.

Kathy Nelson, now in her third year as director of YoJack, said the ability to touch more kids’ lives with the program is really beneficial.

“We normally have 38 participants and 12 youth advisers, which are students who have participated in the program in the previous session,” she said. “There are 50 kids per session, so just the ability to introduce more kids to leadership at a young age is really helpful for their future to get them headed toward being a better leader.”

YoJack started in 2000, 18 years after the adult leadership program was established in the county.

There are five meetings per session, conducted once a month at different locations around the county.

The first four meetings focus on small- and large-group activities to enhance team-building, leadership, diversity and communication skills.

The students also learn how to use their time, talent and treasures to give back to the community and help others. This session’s service project is ringing bells for The Salvation Army.

“I really haven’t changed the curriculum much since I came into the program just because it is such a good curriculum already and it really doesn’t need changed,” Nelson said. “I just really appreciate everything that has been put into the program in the past. It has made it very easy for me to take it and hit the floor running.”

During the fifth meeting, each student makes a presentation in front of their peers sharing how the YoJack experience helped them. That’s conducted in the council chambers at Seymour City Hall.

To help them be prepared, Nelson shares presentation tips, including making eye contact and speaking clearly.

“That’s definitely part of being a leader, too, being able to present something in front of a large group and feeling comfortable with that,” Nelson said. “Not everybody is, so that’s really beneficial.”

Participation in the program and the presentations help determine the 12 students who come back to the next session as youth advisers. The eighth-graders serve as mentors to the seventh-graders.

Nelson said it’s always interesting to see the progression in the students from the first meeting to the last.

“The first day is usually pretty quiet. You get 50 seventh- and eighth-graders together, usually, they are pretty quiet,” she said.

“By the second meeting, the third meeting for sure, they are getting to know each other a lot better,” she said. “They are good kids, they listen when we ask them to be quiet and they are respectful to each other, so it all works out.”

Seymour Middle School eighth-grader Rieder McDonald said he only knew three people at the beginning of this fall’s session, but since then, he has gotten to meet people from other schools.

“I feel like it allows me to realize that different schools, we still are able to become friends,” he said. “I like making friends and being able to look through differences.”

Peyton Brock, an eighth-grader at Lutheran Central School in Brownstown, said she found herself in a similar situation.

“It was a little scary because I didn’t know many people, but then it got better because I started to get to know everyone,” she said.

Both of them see value in the YoJack program.

“It allows you to meet a lot of friends, it allows you to learn leadership skills and it’s just an all-around nice thing,” McDonald said.

Brock said it has allowed her to understand the importance of community service and being a better leader in her community.

“We can all get better leadership skills,” she said. “If no one has leadership skills, it’s going to be hard to put a community together and help others.”

At the end of the program, Nelson said she hopes each student looks at what they can offer as a leader.

“So many people say these kids are our future, and they truly are, so we like to give them any tools that we can to be a better leader and just to give them as many tools as we can to be leaders for the future,” she said. “The younger they can start, the better off it’s going to be for everyone, the better off it’s going to be for them, the more opportunities they are going to have.”

Nelson said she likes interacting with the kids. During each meeting, she gives them time to share what they have accomplished since the previous meeting before they delve into the scheduled activities.

“This age group is really fun,” she said. “They are so eager to learn and to participate and just really wanting to grow their skills. I really enjoy it.”

She also has the unique opportunity to work with some of the students twice when they return as youth advisers.

“It has been nice getting to know the kids, especially when they come back as youth advisers,” she said. “Getting to have them a part of the program that second year, it’s really nice to develop and then see them grow up from there.”

Crothersville eighth-grader Zachary Helt is among this session’s youth advisers.

He said he gained confidence by participating in YoJack in the spring, and it meant a lot to him to be chosen as a youth adviser.

Helt said he wants to help the students learn leadership skills and believe in themselves.

“It shows kids how to believe in themselves and actually get to meet new people,” he said of YoJack.

Along the way, Nelson said she is able to refresh her leadership skills, too.

“We can all use refreshers on the skills that we have and bring forth the skills,” she said. “You use different skills with different opportunities, and there are different areas sometimes I’m a leader, sometimes I’m not a leader.

“I think it has helped me being able to focus on leadership positions in different situations because there are times to be a leader and to step forward, and there are also those times where I just need to step back and let others lead,” she said. “I think that’s key.”

Nelson said she hopes to someday see the students be involved in the Leadership Jackson County class as adults.

There have only been two people graduate from both programs, and there are a couple of members of the current Leadership Jackson County class who completed YoJack.

Now having two sessions per year may increase that number.

“I think it’s outstanding that we can do that,” Nelson said of the YoJack expansion. “I’m really excited because it does give that many more kids the opportunity to learn about leadership and hone their skills, as well.”

At a glance

For information about YoJack, email Director Kathy Nelson at yojackindiana@gmail.com.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.