By Karen Huppertz – For the AJC

Greenville, S.C. is well known for its downtown revitalization. Having grown up there, I remember when Main Street was a mile-long stretch of crumbling, empty storefronts. Now, city leaders from around the country travel to my hometown to learn how to rejuvenate their own town centers.

At the heart of Greenville’s transformation were visionary leaders who evaluated the city’s strengths and weaknesses. They focused on public-private partnerships to provide the impetus for change and growth.

I was reminded of the importance of strong leadership when I met recently with Lisa Zaken, executive director of Leadership Gwinnett, a nine-month program designed to ‘Educate, Equip and Engage’ existing and emerging leaders in the county. Each class of about 40 participants is selected from between 250-300 applicants each year and represents different professional, cultural and geographic backgrounds. Similar programs exist for most Atlanta metro counties.

The program places these leaders together to learn from each other and to educate them on everything from the history of the county to how clean drinking water reaches our homes.

Essential pieces of the program include information about the arts, education, healthcare, transportation, municipal government and infrastructure, along with economic development, police and emergency services.

The goal is to have an educated group of leaders to tackle problems. At the end of nine months, participants understand how the county works and have most likely identified a few challenges needing attention. In fact, part of the program’s graduation process requires each participant to make a commitment. Some commit to learning more, others identify specific programs where they will volunteer their time.

Demetrius Jordan, senior director of United Way of Greater Atlanta and Patrick McDonough, a criminal defense attorney with Andersen, Tate & Carr found themselves troubled by the high rate of incarcerated individuals becoming repeat offenders. They learned from the Gwinnett County Sherriff’s Department that many released inmates lack housing, healthcare and income making their transition back into society nearly impossible.

As a result, the two have worked to form the Gwinnett Reentry Intervention Program to provide transitional housing, mental and physical health services, and employment and financial counseling.

Last fall, Leadership Gwinnett introduced a new two-and-a-half day mini version of the program called GLANCE Gwinnett. This fast-paced program is ideal for community leaders who can’t commit the time or tuition required of the nine-month program, yet want to take a more active role in the community. Tuition is $600 as opposed to $3,000. No application is required; you simply sign-up online. Response to GLANCE Gwinnett has been overwhelming, with many graduates vowing to apply for the longer program.

As Dr. Suess put it so well in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Leadership Gwinnett and GLANCE Gwinnett participants are not only making valuable networking connections, they are truly solving problems because they too care a whole awful lot.

Community Voices: Leadership essential to keeping communities alive