An Odyssey of Learning Adventures
Wheeler Youth Leadership Program:
In the next few months, nine high school students from Wheeler County will embark on a unique adventure. As participants in the first-ever Chamberled youth leadership program in the county, the teenagers will walk through longleaf pine forests, visit bustling ports facilities on the Georgia coast, and see how a local cabinet artisan refines his product. Along the way, they will learn about how government functions, what it takes to be successful in business, and issues facing not just their own community, but the world beyond. continued from page
The youth leadership program sponsored by the Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce is spearheaded by Chamber President Janice Mock, who is working with a team composed of community leaders whose backgrounds range from education to marketing/media to small business. Between them, a year-long strategy was developed with the express purpose of creating leadership in the next generation— shepherding potential leaders who will be acquainted with the pros and cons of their community and who will be better prepared to tackle important issues to ensure a more prosperous future.
The students come from diverse backgrounds. Among them there is a mix of those who have excelled academically and those who have gotten off track with their studies. The selection of the nine students, accomplished by local school administrators, provided a cross section of personalities, talent and achievement. “This was done deliberately,” Mock said. “We wanted to bring together students who were role models with other students who needed guidance and encouragement.” It has made for some interesting dynamics, but so far, it has worked. The students appear to enjoy each other’s company and each one brings something different to the program.
The overarching purpose of the endeavor, which extends from October 2020 to a May 2021 graduation, is to expose the students to a myriad of objectives and to tie it all together with guidance on personal responsibility. The first session took students to Wheeler County’s Little Ocmulgee State Park (LOSP) where they heard from newlyelected District 149 State Representative Robert Pruitt on state government and issues facing the Georgia Legislature. They also heard from Mock about the role of the local Chamber of Commerce, and from School Superintendent Suzanne Couey, also a program board member. Ellen Selph of the Friends of LOSP talked about how a team of community volunteers is helping to provide improvements and maintenance at the park.
In the second session held on November 13, the teenagers took a trip to A and G Hunting Preserve near Glenwood where they got an up close and personal look at the quail hunting operation there with Payton Gunby, a world-class quail hunting champion whose family runs the preserve, and Gunby’s associate Lindsay Cuming. “We were so happy to host the leadership group. It is important to acquaint young people with the sport of quail hunting and the preservation of wildlife and the perpetuation of habitat that are counterparts to the sport. We want more young people involved in the sport and would be happy for any of these young leaders to join us for one of the hunts we conduct at the preserve so that they can see how it is done and potentially embrace the sport,” Gunby said. The third session also took the class to one of Wheeler County’s most outstanding natural wonders, the Alligator Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Assistant Chief of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Conservation Section Matt Elliott traveled from his office in Social Circle to provide the students with some unforgettable experiences with wildlife. Elliott brought along two species of animals often found at the WMA: an endangered and federallyprotected indigo snake and a gopher tortoise, a keystone species being considered for listing as a protected species. Gopher tortoise burrows are often used by the indigo snakes and other animals, thus the tortoise’s designation as “key” in the balance of the ecosystem. The WMA is a unique sandhill site situated between Alligator Creek and Little Ocmulgee River, which is home to hundreds of species of plants, including the ubiquitous wire grass, as well as the longleaf pine which once grew so naturally and prolifically in the South. Reese Thompson, Sr., and Reese Thompson, Jr., told the students about the many different species of grasses which abound in the area, as well as ground-level species which act as cover and foraging material for the wildlife. Thompson, Sr., is a member of the Longleaf Alliance, a longleaf tree farmer in Wheeler County, and a strong proponent of the renewal of the longleaf forests through prescribed burning. He shared his views on the importance of propagating the longleaf forests which have declined across the Southeastern United States in recent years. The WMA is one of the state-owned sites where longleaf pines have been planted and which are managed through prescribed burns.
Before they enjoyed a picnic lunch served by the Alamo Lions Club beneath the pines, the students also heard from DNR Wildlife Biologist Greg Nelms and Orianne Society representative Brannon Knight, who shared their perspectives on the importance of maintaining wildlife management sites like Alligator Creek and how preservation of species like the indigo snake, gopher tortoise, and longleaf pine are critical in the balance of the ecosystem. A walk along the banks of Alligator Creek at its confluence with Little Ocmulgee River provided the students with a glimpse of the natural beauty to be found in their midst. As they made their way down to the creek, Elliott shared that the site boasts the largest recorded swamp black gum tree in the state and that the DNR is planning a canoe launch for that particular stretch of land along the creek.
Among the topics the students will tackle in the next few months are Understanding Leadership— Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens; the Wheeler County fiveyear plan for economic development; personal finance; jury duty; health and social services; taxes, voting and local commerce. They will actually visit local government offices, the courthouse, watch a logging operation in action, and see how the justice system works firsthand, including a visit to the Sheriff’s Office and jail.
Their journey will take them to the Glenwood Telephone Museum and they will contrast the beginnings of communications in the county to current plans for broadband expansion. They will see the Wheeler-Telfair Airport just across the highway from the state park and consider how this connection might be better developed. They will also inspect river landings with an eye on how the county’s natural amenicontinued from page
ties might spur a future in agritourism. During their year-long odyssey, the students will choose projects based on the county’s current issues and focus on how a vision for the future of the county might be developed in solving these issues.
“We know this program is ambitious and that we are providing these students a lot to absorb, but we feel we must start somewhere. The time seems right and our purpose is clear. We are very happy with the results so far,” Mock commented.
The program is voluntary and the participants applied to be included. A strong sign that the concept is working may be found in the fact that since the program started, many other students have asked to be considered for future programs. “We hope this program will inspire these young people to become community leaders. Whether they choose to pursue careers in the military, or the trades, or to earn a degree in law or medicine or education, we hope they will become the best citizens they can be and come back to their home county to help it prosper,” Mock enthused.
Mock plans to repeat the program each year, and she is not content with only accommodating the teens. A concept for adult community leaders is also in the works.