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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Teens Learn to Lead in Saturday Morning Program

Middle and high school students from around Washtenaw County are spending their Saturdays preparing to become successful adults. They are learning how to speak well and to lead others, all through a unique program hosted at Ypsilanti’s Parkridge Community Center.

The program is the brainchild of Amin Ladha, chief information officer at the College. It’s modeled after the Toastmasters International youth program. While many of their classmates are home getting a slow start to the weekend, the motivated teens at Parkridge are setting agendas, running meetings, researching current events, and speaking intelligently and confidently to peers and adults.

“I have been a Toastmaster for 15 years, and I watched as the skills of new members improved throughout the program,” Ladha said. “So I talked with Anthony Williamson, who sponsors an afterschool program at Parkridge, to see if there was any interest in starting a Youth Leadership program at the center.”

Program Was a Hit From the Start

Ladha feels that the success of the first session three years ago has helped ensure the program’s longevity. “The kids loved it, the parents loved it,” Ladha said. “And they really wanted it to continue. So now we run two sessions during the school year, one in the fall and another over the winter.”

He encourages the managers in his department and in other areas across campus to participate in the program as mentors and role models. That is what Linda Williams, manager of WCC Financial Systems, has been doing for about two and a half years. She grew up in the Parkridge neighborhood, and sees volunteering as a way of giving back to her community.

“I try to make it every Saturday,” Williams said. “Growing up, my mom was very active in the community with other moms from the neighborhood. And there were a lot of things to do at the Parkridge Center. This is a great way to stay involved and to be a positive role model.”

Williams is very impressed and pleased with the impact the program has had in such a short time. “It’s a very relaxed and engaging atmosphere,” she said. “It’s conducted like an actual business meeting. Someone (one of the students) leads it and walks us through the agenda. They learn and practice a lot of organizational skills along with the public speaking experience. They also learn how to get along with one another and how to be respectful. It’s really inspiring. They can see a life beyond high school.”

Students Participate Year After Year

Ladha and Williams agree that an indication of the program’s success is that many students return year after year.

“Some students have been with us since the inception,” Ladha said. “And I can tell by their behavior, their attitude, and their growth that they’re eager to learn.”

One Saturday, WCC Trustee Stephen Gill was a guest speaker. And his speech—like those of everyone else—received close scrutiny. “The students got a big kick out of giving feedback to someone as knowledgeable and accomplished as Dr. Gill,” said Ladha. “And I know that he really enjoyed the experience, too.”

“During the critiques, we try to give them positive feedback and helpful tips on how to improve their speeches and how to get better at presenting them,” said Williams. She emphasized that the Saturday morning sessions also have had a positive impact on the students’ schoolwork.

“We’ve become their sounding board,” Williams said. “They get to try things out with us before they present them in their classes. Or they’ll bring things to us that they’ve done in school.

“We’ve had speeches on serious topics like breast cancer. One of the students is really interested in animal rights. So her speeches bring awareness to how precious animals are in society and what the environment is like for them at the zoo. She says that she wants to be a veterinarian, and I’m sure that someday she will be.”

More Students Are Welcome

Although the program takes place at an Ypsilanti community center, students come from all over the county. According to Ladha, youths from as far away as Chelsea and Saline drive into Ypsilanti on Saturday to participate.

“We’d like to see more people from the local neighborhood participate,” said Williams. “There’s no cost to them, the program is free. Getting the word out in the community regularly might help.”

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