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Fostering community, cultivating leaders

Seventeen rising seniors from high schools across the state recently came to Riley Institute’s Emerging Public Leaders program at Furman University to learn more about service-oriented  leadership and begin local projects to improve their communities.

EPL is a nine-month program that begins with an intensive week-long program at Furman and ends with a presentation of the projects in the spring, said Melanie Armstrong, program coordinator. The program, initiated in 2003, accepts students based on grades, extracurricular activities, and teacher recommendations. It also places emphasis on applications from poverty-stricken communities, particularly in the Interstate 95 corridor.

Participants include Alexis Adams, Scott’s Branch High, Summerton, who wants to create a grant program focusing on small businesses and offering resources for citizens hoping to start their own businesses; Jo Baslot, Wilson High, Florence, create a youth program focused on outdoor activities, nature and the environment; Nikhalia Cheepurapalli, Spring Valley High, Columbia, establish a “Fitness Day” to promote healthy lifestyles; and Natrone Davis, Scott’s Branch High, Summerton; create a  mentoring program for males in the first and second grade.

Other participants are Luke DeMott, Mauldin High, Greenville, create a mentorship/tutoring program for poor elementary-school children in Greenville; Lydia Fink, East Forsyth High, Kernersville, N.C., create a children’s book about pollution in reaction to the Dan River coal ash spill; and Mary Beth Grant, Greenwood High, Greenwood, help Meg’s House by forming a support group for young women to help them find resources available in their community.

More participants are Westin Hardesty, Travelers Rest, High, Travelers Rest, create an outreach program that enables community theater in her town to grow and prosper; Brittany Joyce, Hartsville High, Hartsville, establish a program to improve relationships between police and young people; Mani King, St. Joseph’s High, Greenville; raise awareness of teen pregnancy with social media pages and volunteering at a non-profit that works with teens and young parents; Juejie Liu, Aiken High, Aiken; organize students to help respond to environmental disasters when state and local governments are not effective; and Kenny Nguyen, Greenwood Christian, Greenwood, promote education with an interactive tutoring program and create videos touting Greenwood.

Other participants are Lucas Paquette, Johnsonville High, Johnsonville, create a permanent senior center; Susannah Pazdan, Christ Church Episcopal, Greenville; create a student-led program to address the root causes of homelessness and work with the homeless to help them find available resources; Tre’ Dessa Smalls, Hartsville High, Myrtle Beach; create a program to help African-American girls gain self—acceptance and self-esteem; and James Wiley, Riverside High, Greer; produce a documentary including  interviews with educators and others to help developmentally/intellectually disabled people find employment.

Dick Riley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. secretary of education in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said the program is “good for the state. Most of the students will end up right here” in South Carolina. “Leadership is the word to describe somebody who can have an impact.”

During the week, the students  participated in team-building activities; had discussions with Furman professors about state and local government issues; sustainability, social media, ethics and other challenges,  discussed issues in their own communities, talked with Greenville City Council members and toured downtown Greenville, eating at Barleys Taproom and Grill and Spill the Beans.

The group also visited agencies including Triune Mercy Center, discussed poverty and its challenges, met the Furman president; and attended a luncheon with Riley. Students also visited state agencies in Columbia and honed the projects they are planning for their home communities. Throughout the week, fun activities such as cookouts, swimming, and pizza parties are included.

“You listen to others and you’re interested in others,” Riley told the group at a luncheon. “I think that’s real important in leadership.”

King said of her project that she wants “to help those teen parents who are raising the next generation.”

Pacquette said he became interested in EPL when he heard about it at school: “It seemed right up my alley. This program has taught me a great amount.”

His project came about because “I’ve always had a bond with senior citizens. My greatest hero is my grandmother.” Johnsonville has many senior citizens but few resources. He said he has been working with local churches to visit the home-bound elderly and would like to establish a permanent senior center, with the aid of Johnsonville City Council and his school.

Alumni of the EPL program also attended the luncheon with Riley and the participants.

“For me, I grew up in a small town. I traveled a lot. My dream was to leave this small town and small state,” said Niti Parthasarathy, EPL 2005. The program “showed me how to do good where you are,” and she learned about what was going on in Greenville. “I had always thought service was being in a leadership position. It taught me to get in the mud a little bit.”

Her project, Rock Stars, was a mentoring program exposing young children to the arts, said the graduate of the Governor’s School of the Performing Arts and Duke University.

After living in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Rio de Janiero, Brazil; she returned to Greenville a month ago. “I want to make this city as great a place as possible,” she said, adding she has just become involved in Habitat for Humanity.

Lathrum Johnson, a 2007 EPL graduate from Bennettsville and a Furman graduate, currently works at Furman and is planning to attend medical school in Greenville.

EPL “was a strong foundation for leadership,” he said. “The skills I gained enabled me to get more out there in the community.”

He said the program creates a network of young leaders who can help South Carolina grow and prosper.

Monica Dongre, who was in the initial EPL class, is from Greer but now lives in Charlotte where she is an attorney. Her project was creating a mentoring program for elementary school children, encouraging them to use the library.

“I think EPL taught me self-confidence and the power of community service and networking,” she said.

Last updated July 1, 2014
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director