Community News

Investing in Mason County Community Leaders

The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound is thrilled to congratulate the third and final cohort of the Mason County Rural Community Leadership Program on their completion of the nine-month program. This concludes the Community Foundation's total three-year investment of $75,000 supporting this leadership-building initiative in Mason County. Across all three years, the program drew a total of 82 participants. This diverse mix of seasoned and emerging leaders represented local businesses, government, nonprofit organizations, and sovereign nations.

Mason County Leadership Cohort 3 Members

Rural Development Initiatives (RDI)—a place-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to strengthen rural people, places, and economies in the Pacific Northwest—facilitated the program. RDI provided 48 hours of structured curriculum designed to build leadership capacity. The Community Foundation provided funding, based on our shared belief that vital rural communities need knowledgeable and skilled leaders in order to flourish.

Susan Kirchoff, Executive Director of Shelton Youth Connection, participated in the third cohort. Key skills she appreciated building through the program included facilitating group decision-making, building consensus, and becoming a stronger communicator. "RDI did a great job, month-to-month, of building on learned experience," she says. "I learned a lot about how to verbalize a firm opinion without coming across as inflexible. If you want to become a stronger leader, make a lasting impression, create change, or impact your community—then I definitely recommend this program."

At the end of the program, each cohort completed a final group project together, for a chance to apply what they'd learned in a real-life setting. The first cohort's project was to build "buddy benches" for ten Mason County elementary schools. Buddy benches are a popular concept used by schools around the world to promote kindness and empathy when students need the company of a friend or caring adult. The second year cohort's project was to organize a Discover Mason County Treasure Hunt. This event celebrated community assets through a tour of local businesses, restaurants, recreation areas, and other local "treasures", culminating in a celebration. Organizing the treasure hunt created opportunities for cohort members to uncover local issues, needs, and new ways to proactively support their community.

Mason County Leadership Cohort 2 Members

The third year cohort was faced with the additional challenges of completing the program during the uncertainty and strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. One downside they experienced as a result was that their cohort ended up being smaller than the others due to the general upheaval and the shift to learning online. However, those cohort members who were able to remain and see the program through gained a hands-on opportunity to temper their leadership skills, adapt, and respond in a crisis. They also built close-knit relationships. 

Third year participant, Coco Chang, believes those relationships are vital. "The program really highlighted the rural perspective and problem-solving in a setting where people know each other well," she says. "I'm relatively new to the area, and getting to know twenty-plus Mason County leaders made me feel  more connected. People in the program were generous in connecting me to others, and as a Person of Color coming into a predominantly white community, those connections were important to make." Those connections weren't just important on a personal level. Communities as a whole benefit when diverse and representative leaders come together to shape the future. "Rural demographics are shifting and they'll continue to do so," says Coco. "As that happens, it's important to make sure that people who look like me are invited to the table and made to feel welcome. That was something this program did well."

For their group project, the final cohort chose to establish secure storage spaces for youth and young adults at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Anyone who knows the panic of losing a purse or wallet can imagine how important it is to have a secure place to store personal items. The goal of this project was to relieve that kind of worry and stress, which is common with housing instability. Knowing that important items are secure frees up more energy for young people to focus on obtaining jobs, education, or other opportunities for a better future.

Shelton Youth Connection hosted the project and applied for additional project funding. They were met with enthusiastic community and business support, including lumber donations from Sierra Pacific, donated storage bins from Costco, locks provided at cost, and $500 from Hood Canal Communications. This resulted in left-over funds just prior to Christmastime. The Community Foundation approved the cohort's request for flexibility to apply the left-over funds to purchase and distribute gift cards for families and youth living in both South and North Mason County. The gift cards made it possible for many youth and families to give gifts and connect during the holiday season, despite the extra financial pressure of COVID.

In addition to acquiring new leadership skills and serving their community through these projects, cohort members forged connections with each other, with members of other cohorts, and with the broader community. "I built relationships with people I might not have ever crossed paths with had I not met them through this program," says Susan. Now, after spending nine months together, members of her cohort have a strong network of local leaders and the ability to reach out to each other for future opportunities, support, and collaboration.

Mason County Leadership Cohort 1 Members

Beyond individual connections, the program also strengthened partnerships with key local community stakeholders, including: North Mason and Shelton Chambers of Commerce, Skookum Rotary Club, Washington State University Extension Service, Mason County PUD No. 1, Mason County Fire District and Port District, and businesses including Peninsula Credit Union, Sierra Pacific, Green Diamond, Hood Canal Communications, and Taylor Shellfish.

The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound was excited to partner with RDI, other funders, local businesses, service clubs, and donors in support of this network of Mason County leaders. We celebrate the program participants, whose achievements and dedication to their communities give us every reason to believe the tools and connections gained through the program will benefit Mason County for years to come.

February 23, 2021

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