Youth leadership program empowers teens in Shelby County
Story By Grace Thornton
Natalie Odgers likes meeting new people.
“I’m a people person, and I love building relationships,” said Odgers, a junior at Shelby County High School.
So when she was accepted into the youth program of Leadership Shelby County, she was ecstatic. Joining the group put her right in the middle of more than 30 high school juniors — as well as a number of professional leaders in Shelby County. And she was excited about both.
“I have loved it so far, especially a healthcare day we had recently,” she said. “I want to be a nurse, and the speakers answered a lot of questions that I had and told me so many things I didn’t know about the field.”
Carol Bruser, coordinator of Leadership Shelby County, said that’s what the youth program is all about.
“Through the six-month-long program for high school juniors, we are supplying students with the correct information to take back to their schools and their peers,” Bruser said. “We want them to know about what it’s like to be a professional in their county. We want to empower them in decision making.”
Leadership Shelby County does that for them through education days, during which they tour venues like hospitals and government offices.
“We want to expose them to different things and raise awareness of healthcare, education, justice and government. We have educational events like a justice day where students get to hear about the justice system and then work through a mock trial,” Bruser said. “On another day, we take them to Montgomery to see how the House and Senate work.”
The students also do a service project much like the adults of Leadership Shelby County.
“They’re doing amazing things through these projects, whether it’s working with a hospice program or working with senior citizens or with drug advocacy, the students are leaders just like the adults are,” Bruser said.
It’s something the students carry with them, she said.
The youth program is about 15 years old at this point, so Bruser is continually running into alumni at community events and seeing how their professional lives are taking off.
“Now, I’m starting to run into these wonderful young adults at chamber meetings and they say, ‘Ms. Bruser, you don’t remember me?’ and I laugh and say, ‘No, you’re grown up, you’re an attorney, I don’t remember who you are,’” she said. “The youth program members, as they graduate, are starting to apply for the adult program.”
And Bruser said she will be interested to see what the generational effect of that will look like as students become professionals and begin to invest in the next round of students.
“Shelby County is what it is today because people care and continue to care,” she said, adding the program is helping them “create an ownership of their county.”
It’s also helping them create a tight-knit community with high school juniors from all over Shelby County, Bruser said.
“Typically there are 30 to 35 in the group — this year there’s 32,” she said. “We’ve found that this number creates a closer-knit class.”
The students — selected from around 80 applicants each year — come from public and private schools across the county, and though they begin as strangers, they leave as the best of friends, Bruser said.
“They go on to college together and are roommates sometimes. They go to proms together. They go on senior trips,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for them to know people they would never know.”
It’s the part Odgers is most excited about.
“I applied because I had a friend who did it last year and she said she met lots of new people and made lots of friends she didn’t have,” Odgers said. “I can’t wait to keep going back to all the different things and keep up with the people even after this year is over.”
The program also offers three $2,500 scholarships to members each year — one to a student attending Jeff State Community College, one to a student attending the University of Montevallo and one to the school of the recipient’s choice.
Applications for the youth program are available at the beginning of each school year in each Shelby County high school’s guidance counselor’s office. For more information, visit Leadershipshelbycounty.wordpress.com.