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Their dreams will make them future leaders

One person’s passion can sometimes become an entire community’s sea-change for the better. That is the idea behind an East Missouri Action Agency program that recently graduated six new community leaders.

Each of the Step Up to Leadership graduates has been asked to write a grant request for $500 to start something or solve a problem in their area of interest.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” said Rob Baker, with EMAA, “But there are a lot of organizations worldwide that started with one person’s passion. Passion, when it has the right kind of fuel can spread.”

A well-known example, Baker said, is the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness.

“That started with one person, the surviving sister of Susan Komen, who said she would pursue breast cancer awareness and do everything she could to further that cause. They have donated $2 billion worldwide to research and the treatment of breast cancer. Sixty-four thousand people took part in the last Susan G Komen Race for the cure in St. Louis. So it can be done, and we don’t discount that.”

The six graduates are from Ironton, Cape Girardeau, Old Mines, Farmington and have diverse interests and talents.

Linda Lane, Ironton, who discovered through the program that her leadership style is predominantly that of an Eagle, is passionate about her community’s garden.

“I like the idea of people coming together to share a basic need at the grassroots level,” she said. “Each person is unique and contributes a part of themselves to the spirit of the garden. It is enriching to know about each of them.”

Lane herself tells other she’s an artist, a grower, an educator, a natural leader — a person with diversified interests.

“The Iron County Community garden of which I’m a member, provides me a venue to actualize all these aspects of myself, as well as my passion. As an artist, the garden provides me with continual inspiration — plan fibers for two-dimensional artwork, an endless array of color schemes, three-dimensional ideas for sculptures. As a grower, it provides me with space to practice my skills in sustainable organic gardening, and as a reward, I have quality fresh produce. As a bonus, I meet new friends and save money and am more self-sufficient.”

Lane plans to write a grant for the garden because it empowers people in the community and provides growth opportunities and inspiration to a wide variety of people.

Tammy Politte’s youngest son helped her define her passion — the back to school fair. “Think back to when we were kids,” her son told her, “You had four in school at one time and struggled to get school supplies.”

Politte, who is also from Ironton, knew that was the right answer for her passion. “I understand the struggles of low income families, where they need help with school supplies. Because they helped us with school supplies and shoes, we had a little extra to buy school clothes.”

As a single mother, Xavier Bland, Cape Girardeau, had a defining moment in 1992 when her neighbor, also the pastor of her church, urged her to go back to college.

She herself had grown up on welfare and didn’t want her kids to do so, but she could not keep up with working so many jobs to make ends meet. “I had to sleep at some point,” she said, only half joking.

Going to college was a daunting task, one with many obstacles. With the support of her neighbor, she was inspired to try. But when she took the ACT, she only made an 11. Without at least a 13 she could not qualify for any financial aid, and she would have no way to pay for the training that would allow her to escape welfare.

She called the Dean of Admissions, explaining her situation as a single mom, pleading for some way to get into college.

“I told him, ‘I have two daughters and I don’t want them to grow up on welfare.’”

The dean at first promised only to think about it, but it was ultimately agreed she could attend school on academic probation.

She tried a couple different majors before finally settling on environmental studies. She did well in her studies, and was so determined to escape welfare that she was able to get a job her senior year in college.

“Today my daughters, who are 21 and 22, have only been on welfare four years, the years I was on welfare. I used the system to get out of the system and graduated in 1996,” Bland said.

She wants to help other young women like herself take an easier path to self-sufficiency.

“I want to give back,” she said. “I see a lot of young ladies these days, pushing strollers and haven’t even finished high school. My purpose and one of my main goals is to help them get through high school and graduation and then think about a family.”

Mary Lee of Farmington can sum up her passion in one word. Dance.

She learned about the power of dance from her niece.

“It just inspires me when I see my great niece dance and do solos, it took me to another world. I don’t have the words to describe how it makes me feel,” she said. “You think about it, oh dance, what is that? But it is so much work, you would not believe! It is so amazing.”

Lee said she could not yet reveal her project, but that she has already begun putting some things into place for it.

“This class I thought it would be about nothing, but it wasn’t. I learned so much. Every week was something new.”

Jennifer Lawson, Old Mines, was at an emotional low point when she found the Step Up to Leadership Program. She was newly single after 15 years of a “not very good” marriage and her son had graduated and joined the Air Force. She was at the EMAA to seek assistance for heating during the winter and saw the Step Up flyer.

“Knowing I could take that class, benefit from it, learn from it and put myself out in the community and not just be a single woman at home with no worth — because you do feel that way when you get my age and you are single and all you have is your dogs — I learned a lot in the classes.”

She wants to start a neighborhood watch program in her community. “I am very proud of my son, and I think he would be proud of me. He has really inspired me. I hope I can get this grant and go ahead and get a neighborhood watch started off of it.”

Jay Horton, Irondale, said his passion and his project were not really one and the same. His project is a better parks system for Irondale, but his passion, he said is simply community service.

“As a young man growing up in the small town of Irondale, I noticed there were men and women who stepped up to do the things that needed to be done,” Horton said.

He himself tries to follow their example, helping out with the annual homecoming and serving as secretary treasurer for the fire department and also doing stints as mayor and an alderman.

“I feel these people built a bridge for me to cross and go from a citizen who saw things happen to a citizen who makes things happens,” Horton said. “It’s very easy to get excited about something that affects you personally, but to step out and get excited about something someone else is doing … you realize it takes more than you, and that person is thinking the same thing.”

He wants to encourage people to find something to do in their communities, to help make it better. He also wants to encourage those who are active in the community to be more proactive  about asking for help.

“Don’t expect people to come knock on the door and ask if you need help,” he said. “Make sure they are aware of your needs. I am a firm believer that a community is only as successful and thrilling as those willing to step up and take charge and do things are.”

EMAA has been doing the Step Up to Leadership Program for about 10 years. The participants have started a wide variety of programs in the community, from food pantries and youth basketball leagues, to a fire safety program for people with a disability.

Participants learn what their predominant leadership style is, identify and focus on what their passion is going to be and learn conflict management skills. They also learn about the laws governing public boards, explore funding options, diversity and public presentations.

EMAA staff as well as community experts assist in teaching the class, which includes many hands on opportunities to put the training into practice.

The training program is free and open to anyone, but the grant is only available to those whose incomes are 125 percent of poverty level or below. A stipend for gas is also available to those who are income eligible to assist them in getting to the program.

The goal of the program is to train new and emerging community leaders, so that they have the skills necessary to pursue their passion and commitment to making a better community.

Grant recipients are selected by an independent panel of community leaders based on the viability of the project. EMAA does not play any role in the selection of the grant recipients.

Funding for the program comes from federal funding for Community Development Block Grants.

For more information, contact Baker at EMAA at 431-5191, ext. 1183.

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