How do you prepare young adults to be local leaders? Start in high school

Since 2005, the volunteer organization Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI) has helped attract and retain emerging leaders in the 11-county region, focusing on that employment-ready, 20- and 30-something age group.

After all, when you finish your education and land your first job in a region, you might find yourself ready to get involved in the local area and to plant roots.

But how do you develop the leadership skills necessary to engage in your community as a young adult—or even know where to start?

After working with Fort Wayne area youth for several years, YLNI member Stephanie Taylor wanted to help students get plugged into local activities at an earlier age, so they could make an even bigger impact in the community as they grow.

“I wanted to help students understand who they are as a leader, to encourage them to think outside of the box when it comes to their future, and to believe that they can do anything they put their minds to with the tools they learn,” Taylor reflects.

In 2018, she developed and led a volunteer committee to make these ideas a reality in YLNI’s first High School Leadership Institute (HSLI).

In this free, two-week program, area high school students are immersed in interactive learning experiences through lectures, tours of local community assets, and meetings with area leaders.

Sam Graves, YLNI HSLI committee member, says that the goal is to help high schools get into community engagement positions quickly and effectively, in a way that makes sense for them.

“We look for a variety of young leaders with different personalities and interests,” Graves says. “We want extroverts and introverts, individuals interested in colleges, individuals interested in trade schools, individuals with volunteer experience, and others that have none.”

While young adults might face barriers to local leadership in bigger cities, one benefit of Fort Wayne and its surrounding communities is that they are highly accessible to students with big ideas and the drive to see them happen.

Graves says many of the program’s first class of graduates are already making an impact in northeast Indiana by volunteering.

“Most of the participants last year immediately began volunteering in their community, either for the first time or at an increased capacity,” he explains.

One such student is Jurneé-Len Davis, who was recommended to participate in the 2018 HSLI by her high school, R. Nelson Snider High School in Fort Wayne.

“I decided to participate in the leadership program because I was interested in tapping into my leadership skills and strengthening them,” Davis says.

HSLI students meet Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry.

She explains that she was not involved in her community—or even her school—much before HSLI due to a lack of access to transportation and a lack of knowledge about how to get involved. The HSLI program gave her the tools and confidence to access more community resources.

“The biggest thing I learned in the program was how to begin networking,” Davis says. “That single tool alone has helped me score volunteering opportunities, and of those opportunities, I was offered a job.”

Taylor says the 2018 cycle of the HSLI program was considered a success by YLNI’s organizing committee, with 18 out of 19 students completing the program with Davis. This June, the HSLI program heads into its second year, expanding its number of participants by 25 percent and adding more area high schools into the mix.

Beyond this growth, another important success factor of HSLI is seeing high school students like Davis who feel more connected to and positive about their community as a result. Curbing “brain drain,” or the large number of young professionals leaving Indiana to live and work in other states, is what prompted the very first YLNI meeting all those years ago.

Taylor and other YLNI members see increased local pride as a sign that high school students might be more willing to stay in Fort Wayne long-term, adding to the region’s talent retention.

“I know for a fact Fort Wayne is home,” Davis says. “Northeast Indiana is growing into a very welcome place for people of all backgrounds. The growth is small but recognizable.”

After all, the HSLI program’s existence alone is a testament to the fact that emerging leaders like Taylor can turn bold ideas into beneficial actions here.

“Organizing HSLI has been a dream come true for me,” Taylor says. “I am forever grateful to the committee members, students, school districts, and parents for coming together to make this possible.”

Learn More

Registration for the 2019 High School Leadership Institute is closed, but interested parents or students can contact their high school to see if they are participating in the 2020 program. Email Stephanie Taylor at [email protected] for more information.


Tim Zink serves on the board of directors for Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI) and wrote this article on behalf of YLNI.

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