Community issues are something that affect us all, but so often they’re viewed solely as the responsibility of adults to take the lead in directing things—seeking out the solutions to problems, moving political issues through various channels to get laws passed and important decisions made. We sidestep the fact that the future of our communities is directly tied to the younger generations, as well, overlooking their potential to not only take an interest in the current events that are shaping their world, but also to affect a change.
It’s youth-led programs like Lead United that work to alter that and create a new perception and a new expectation, drawing in high school-aged students to form leadership councils focused on taking various issues that their community is facing and taking steps to do something about them in whatever ways they can. It’s a hands-on approach that teaches them everything from how to raise awareness about community concerns and formulating solutions to implementing plans of action; and since its inaugural launch in Clarksville-Montgomery County, the Lead United Student Service Council has been proving that the future has incredible potential.
Focused on addressing community concerns through service projects and volunteerism, each of the council’s student service ambassadors are tasked with helping implement community projects that address important issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, and even sexual assault. Above all, the objective of the United Way’s student program is offering an opportunity for “Service Leadership:” serving first, leading second—two goals combined in a singular mission of enhancing student leadership skills in community service activities, expanding student-based volunteer opportunities, encouraging collaboration amongst students from different local area schools, and informing student leaders about serious issues and needs throughout their community.
In 2018, Lead United in Clarksville took on one issue that truly hungered for attention: food insecurity in Montgomery County. “Developing a plan to fight hunger in Clarksville is crucial because of the overwhelming statistics for Tennessee,” says Lead United President Sarah Lange. And overwhelming they certainly are, as nearly 1,000,000 people struggle each day with hunger throughout the state—more than twenty-five percent of whom are children. So what could be done that would truly make a difference, beyond just handing out food? “A problem we’ve noticed in Clarksville is that many do not know how to prepare the food they receive from food distribution programs such as Manna Cafe. As a result, food is wasted and the families go hungry,” Lange says.
The solution presented itself in an unexpected way: creating a cookbook of inexpensive, nutritious recipes. Unfortunately, one of the challenges the council faced was lack of funding. However, after Veterans United was presented with a grant proposal requesting that the organization fund 500 cookbooks, they were not only granted their initial request—they were given enough to fund 2,000 cookbooks.
The creation and production of the cookbook, along with their service project of handing them out, cooking one of the featured meals, and distributing food to their community members in need is just one example of the power of student leadership. They are our future, and the future starts now.
United Way is accepting applications for Lead United through March 22nd. Current sophomores and juniors are encouraged to apply. For applications, visit school guidance counselors or visit www.liveunitedclarksville.org
Story by Liesel Schmidt + Photography Courtesy of Lead United