ONE ON ONE | Sharon Letson Developing Mahoning Valley leaders of tomorrow

Some people seem to have the impression that teenagers are always in trouble and generally difficult to live with. You have two teenage children and you work with teens, so I'm guessing you may have a different view?
I've always said, you get from them exactly what you think you'll get from them. In all the years I've worked with teens, I've never had one of the students let me down.
They're just waiting for someone to steer them toward something positive. They've got such wonderful energy and they've got lots to bring to the table.
What goes on in Youth Leadership?
It's modeled after the adult program, it's for sophomores only, and generally our classes are about 43 students from maybe 38 different schools.
I think one of the most important parts about that is, they're usually competing with one another in everything, from sports, debate, everything. This program is different. It works on team building, problem solving, decision making, as a collective group.
It's about exposing them to what the area has to offer, and also exposing them to the idea of giving back to their community.
How did you get involved with the program?
I'm a mom first, and I remember hearing often about all our kids leaving. As a mother, I started thinking what a wonderful place the Mahoning Valley is to live in. So often, people sell it short.
Eight years ago one of the adult classes decided to start a youth program as their project, and the director of the program at the time called me and asked if I would be interested. My husband went through the program, she knew I was interested. So I have been with the program since it began.
Sounds like a big responsibility to take on, out of the blue. Did you hesitate?
No, I jumped right in. It took a couple years to prove ourselves, but now we turn away two times what we can take, so it's become very competitive. On the one hand, this is what you work toward, but on the other hand, you hate to turn anyone away.
How do you choose the participants?
They apply through their schools, and we try to provide other opportunities to apply.
The nice part is, because we have so many schools in our area we have a nice, diverse class. We've got young people from the inner city, we've got kids from way out in Trumbull County who are living on a farm. It's really interesting. What we really find out is, kids are kids and the issues are just about always the same.
You only offer the program once a year. Why not add another session to give more teens a chance?
The problem is, how many times can you disrupt a business or ask a business person to speak? We try to tour different businesses and get different business leaders to speak each year.
But we are growing in other ways. Our next project is planning a seminar for businesses or agencies that would like to include young people on their boards.
Oh? That sounds like a new idea.
There's a dual benefit. It gives the agency input from young people, a different viewpoint, and the energy they offer. No hidden agendas. And for the young people it's a learning experience.
You focus a lot of your energy on showing kids the best parts of the Valley. What's your favorite spot?
I'd have to say it's Mill Creek Park. The bike paths, the gardens, there's something there for everybody.
You said you love gardening. Are you a vegetable gardener?
No, I like perennials. I've finally gotten it to where it's always colorful, there's always something new coming in. I also love cut flowers. Zinnias are my favorites.
Do you get to do much traveling?
I went to San Diego recently. It was work and pleasure. I went to a leadership conference at the end of May, and I took my daughter Abby with me.
And we just got back from my favorite place, Stone Harbor, N.J. We've been going there every year for 25 years.
Do you have a hero?
I think my hero probably was my grandma, who I just lost this year.
She was 94 when she passed away. She was a woman who was not well educated but very, very bright. She ran a business. She was very successful, and what she was most successful in was that she never judged anyone. She always had an open arm for people.

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