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Leadership course teaches community members what it takes to run River Falls

Falcon News Service

April 20, 2016

The latest Leadership River Falls class, a community course put on by the Chamber of Commerce, will graduate on May 5 upon completion of a community project.

The Leadership River Falls course is in its 14th year. The nine-month program typically has between 12-14 members recruited from all facets of the community. Some of the students are from the private sector, others are city employees, University faculty and staff, or members of the community who want to take on a more active leadership role in River Falls.

Maranda Mahr, the events and program coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, is involved with developing curriculum and setting the yearly agenda for Leadership River Falls. She said that a community project is the focal point of the Leadership River Falls class.

What the class decides to do completely depends on the personalities and interests of each class, Mahr said. Many factors are considered when the group is choosing the project, such as how sustainable is the project, whether it addresses an unfulfilled need in the community, and if it can even be done as a large group project. Past projects have included everything from building benches around the community, to placing historic plaques on Main Street buildings, and even building Little Free libraries.

This year’s class took a different, more sustainable approach to the project, and decided to develop and implement a youth version of the Leadership River Falls course to community education.

“One of the class members said they just couldn’t believe that they’ve lived here their whole lives yet they got so much out of the class, and wouldn’t it be great for youth community members to get started down this path, too,” Mahr said. “So the program will mimic and shadow the same program we have for the adults in the community.”

Kristin Samp, the conference and contract services manager at UW-River Falls, is a member of this year’s class. She decided to apply for the course simply to learn more about the community.

“I’d seen the application promoted in the chamber’s emails, and just as the idea was spinning through my mind, I had two of my coworkers say, ‘You should apply for this.’ They had both been through the program and thought I would love it, so I applied and got in and I’ve loved it too,” she said. “The only way I really meet (community members) is if they’re a potential client. So for me I’ve gotten to know people from all facets of the community, in house care, banking, CVTC (Chippewa Valley Technical College) — you name it. And that’s been nice, connecting.”

Samp said she and her classmates were so affected by the program that they wanted to leave a sort of legacy with their community project.

“We started just tossing around some ideas, and we were all enjoying this program so much as adults. We talked about how cool it would be if younger people could go through this. It’s a great way to totally get them engaged with their community,” she said.

The program will require a two-year contract between the Chamber of Commerce and the River Falls School District. The course will be geared towards kids in middle school, likely seventh and eighth graders. Three members of this year’s adult Leadership River Falls class will serve on an executive board for the program, and two to three members will lead the youth courses each month.

The Leadership River Falls class is typically held on the first Thursday, starting in September. The course starts with a one-day retreat led by leadership specialist and UWRF Student Involvement Coordinator Paul Shepherd.

“The first day retreat this year took place in a nice house down by the perimeters of Glen Park by the Kinni,” said Mahr. “It’s used as a day to get to know one another and Paul is our leadership component guru, so he leads a lot of discussion getting into the leadership mindset for the course.”

After that first day, each meeting takes on a certain theme, led by a community representative knowledgeable on the subject. Mahr said one of the favorite days is always Heritage Day, where the group is led on a walking tour to the historic points in River Falls, often accompanied by an older community member who can speak about the changes they’ve seen to these spots throughout their days in the community. Another theme typically done is Health and Human Services Day, which took place on April 7 and was led by Jennifer Elsesser and Alice Reilly-Myklebust, who work for Counseling and Health Services at UWRF.

Another important aspect of the Leadership River Falls course is the working lunch each month, led by Shepherd. According to Mahr, students are provided with lunch paid for with tuition, which is $800, and Shepherd talks about leadership skills and techniques that students can utilize for their community project.

The graduation “ceremony” that will take place on May 5 is more of a debriefing and reflection meeting for members of the class and a guest, typically someone from their workplace, Mahr said. The discussion gives class members an opportunity to talk about what they’ve learned and how they’re going to continue to do progressive work in the community.

Samp said that the most impactful part of the course was simply learning how much goes into running the community she’s grown to love.

“I guess for me it’s been kind of eye-opening what it takes to run a community,” she said. “Everything from public works to the council to chamber to retail, it’s just amazing, and how you just go through it and don’t pay any attention to all that. And so what it’s caused me to do is be very aware that everything that’s happening and being done in this community is done very mindfully, and with a lot of people. It’s just made me more appreciative of what’s all happening here.”