A few years ago, Kevin Polston, former principal of Lakeshore Middle School, approached the Grand Haven Chamber of Commerce with a desire to develop a unique leadership program for students in Grand Haven and Muskegon.
 
“The idea was to bring kids together from different school districts to grow their leadership capacity and skills,” says Kevin. “We wanted to create something sustainable that gets students to engage with one another around some really deep topics.
 
To accomplish this goal, Lakeshore Youth Leadership Connections was formed. Each year the program selects 20 middle school and high school students to participate in monthly discussions and activities focused on important issues such as diversity, inclusiveness, collaboration and, of course, leadership. Communication and leadership skills are developed through understanding different points of view and learning how to better relate to others.
 
“This program between Muskegon and Grand Haven is actually a really awesome thing,” says Grand Haven High School student Chris Hudson. “By knowing what else is out there, it has really affected and helped my leadership abilities. Now I have different points of view that can help me be a leader.”
 
Drawing participants from Grand Haven and Muskegon serves to create a unique learning environment. Students come from all walks of life and bring their own stories, experiences, ideas and opinions to the program.
 
“Lakeshore Youth Leadership Connections' tagline is ‘Bridging community perspectives through small circles of change,’” says Nancy Manglos, director of talent and leadership development at the Chamber of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. “It’s based upon understanding the differences that exist and broadening the students’ views of the world.”
 
In addition to meetings, activities are planned to allow students to experience and celebrate the similarities and differences of the two communities. These opportunities may include school visits, presentations with community leaders, and service projects with local charities.
 
In December, for example, students volunteered at a Feeding America Food Truck in Grand Haven. They spent the day sorting food and distributing it to those in need. Temperatures were bitter cold, but the students noted that it was important to give back to the community, and they were more than happy to get involved.
 
Every year students are also given the opportunity to spend part of a day in the school of their peers. Grand Haven students travel to Muskegon and shadow a member of the group and vice versa.
 
“When we went to Muskegon, I got to see firsthand what it’s like to be in a class with them and just experience a normal day,” says Grand Haven High School student Paige Essex. “You realize when you go over there that things are more similar than you think they would be.”
 
Activities like these are meant to break down stereotypes and change any negative perceptions students may have of other communities and schools.
 
“Even though we live in different cities and have different environments, we’re the same,” says Monye Wilson, a student at Muskegon High School. “I can see that we both have our differences, but we’re also a lot alike.”
 
Some students who participated in the first year of Lakeshore Youth Leadership Connections have graduated and are now applying what they learned in the program to become leaders outside of the high school setting. More will walk across the stage to accept their diplomas at the end of this school year with promising futures ahead of them.
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