Standing behind a podium in a near empty first-floor ballroom in Trotter Convention Center Thursday evening, Marian Turner sound-checked the microphone nearly a dozen times.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she recited over and over, making sure the sound wouldn’t overpower the crowd of more than 100 high school students, parents and city officials she would soon be welcoming with her speech.
Once the mic level met the Columbus High School standout senior’s satisfaction, she went out to the lobby for a pair of media interviews before mingling with the evening’s guests as they filtered in.
When Turner joined the Columbus Mayor’s Youth Council as a shy, less sure sophomore, tasks like Thursday’s may have proved overwhelming for her. Now, as the council’s president, they’ve become old-hat.
“I’ve always considered myself a leader, but before I tried to lead from the background,” Turner said. “When I started Mayor’s Youth Council, I wouldn’t really talk to anybody. It took a lot, but soon I opened up more and started taking charge of more things, learning how to lead more courageously, I guess you’d say.”
Thursday’s annual induction and orientation ceremony welcomed 54 members to MYC — the largest class in the 11-year history of Columbus’ program for high-achieving students in ninth-12th grades. These included veterans like Turner and her fellow officers going into their third or fourth year in the program, as well as a swath of fresh faces newly accepted to the ranks.
The local council usually averages about 40 members.
What comes next for the students over the next year are two team meetings per month, myriad community service projects, a visit to the State Capitol to watch the Legislature work during a session and opportunities to learn more about their city, its people and its government.
“There’s more to it than just signing up and getting something to put on your college resume,” said Mayor Robert Smith, who is serving this year as the Mississippi Municipal League chair for Mayor’s Youth Councils across the state. “They engage in teamwork and learn respect. We tell them it’s not going to be easy because we have high expectations for dedication and commitment from these students.”
Like Turner, many MYC inductees enter the organization as timid ninth or 10th graders only to blossom before they graduate, program adviser Brandy Gardner said.
“When they join, many of them are just starting to develop their leadership skills, and we try to give them that extra push they need,” she said. “By the time they leave, they are public speakers, community servants, true leaders. They are ready to take on the world.”
Each year, MYC members spend hundreds of hours supporting community events and organizations.
They pick up trash on roadsides, serve meals to the elderly and less fortunate, and help with Christmas toy and clothing drives, the Columbus Police Department Haunted House fundraiser and the Community Easter Egg Hunt.
Members provide help for local nonprofits upon request, most notably the Columbus-Lowndes United Way.
“So many entities reach out to us because these students are well-mannered, and people know when they show up, they are going to be ready to work,” Gardner said.
For Turner, her favorite service projects are those who help youth, such as a 9/11 Day of Service project she helped with that taught disaster preparedness to elementary-age children at the Lowndes County Soccer Complex.
“We had a skit, and we got to talk with them,” Turner recalled. “It just touched me to be able to do that and to be a role model for younger kids.”
This year, Tuner — who served as the group’s community service liaison as a junior — wants to lead MYC to a more proactive role in the community, in addition to the support members provide other organizations.
“I’m hoping we can establish some events and programs of our own that we can invite the community to join with us, rather than only joining with other groups and events,” she said.
The best of the best
Each year, the Mayor’s Youth Council looks to attract the “best of the best” from local public and private schools.
With each new class come opportunities to strengthen the organization’s impact in the city, Gardner said.
“These kids aren’t just in youth council,” she said. “They are also in Beta Club, band, they’re cheerleaders, you name it. So when we get that kind of a group, with all of those experiences, together and start brainstorming, good ideas start to flow.”
That process starts by finding the right people, thus candidates are exposed to a rigorous application and interviewing regimen. Not all applicants make the cut.
Interested prospects submit applications complete with resume-style information and answers to five essay questions that detail their goals, previous community service and what they believe they bring to the table. They also must submit a letter to the mayor explaining why they want to be a MYC member.
From there, applicants meet with an interview panel of Gardner, Smith and the six elected MYC officers.
The obvious elements matter — grade point average, public presentation, etc. But the MYC committee also vets applicants’ social media activity for posts that might reflect negatively on the group.
“Some people are shocked by that, but I think it’s a good thing to do,” Turner said. “When it comes time for us to get jobs (as adults), it’s not a good look to post certain things on social media.”
Preparing for the future
When Turner graduates in May, most likely with honors, she already will have college credit under her belt through a dual enrollment program with Mississippi University for Women.
She plans to attend Spellman College in Atlanta, where she will either major in international studies or business administration. Either way, she plans to minor in Spanish.
“If I go the business route, I want to be a marketing professional for a big company, and maybe one day start a business of my own.”
Without her experience with MYC, Turner said, her future goals may not have been so bold.
But as Turner enters her final year in the program, Heritage Academy sophomore Liam Sanders is beginning his first.
The program’s reputation drew Sanders to apply, he said, and his immediate goals are the standard “make an impact on my community and build a resume for college.”
His philosophy on how to do that, though, encapsulates the mission both Smith and Gardner laid out for MYC.
“I’m a positive team player,” Sanders said. “I’m going to give my best effort because I want to make a difference.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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