Now in its sixth year, the Crawford County Youth Leadership program continues to thrive as a valuable learning experience for area sixth-graders.

Now in its sixth year, the Crawford County Youth Leadership program continues to thrive as a valuable learning experience for area sixth-graders.

No place was that more apparent on Tuesday than at Pittsburg’s Memorial Auditorium, where nearly 500 students gathered to celebrate their graduation from the leadership program. Dr. Mark Johnson, program co-founder and professor at Pittsburg State University, gave the keynote address.

The program, which started as a pilot project with about 60 participating students, has greatly expanded to now include every sixth-grade student in the county and nearly 50 community members who volunteer to help coordinate the activities. The objective of CCYL is to teach and instill into students the importance of leadership at a time in their lives that is typically a “transition” period.

“There are a lot of changes happening when kids reach this age,” Johnson said. “We thought it was a critical time, as those changes occur, that they start looking at the bigger picture.”

Volunteers meet with the students six times a year, with each meeting covering a different aspects of leadership. Johnson said that during one session, students were taught the difficulty of “taking back” harsh comments using the example of the challenge to put toothpaste back in its tube.

“Try as you might, as much as you want to cram that toothpaste back in its tube, you got a mess,” he said. “It’s always there. When we say hurtful things, it’s very difficult to take back.”

Students are automatically entered into the program upon the start of their sixth-grade year, rather than through an application or sign-up process. Kayla Joy, Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce representative who coordinate’s the program volunteer effort, said making the program available to every student helps avoid missing those children who may not have the confidence to enroll in a leadership group.

“There are a lot of youth out there that would never consider themselves a leader,” she said. “By allowing us in the classroom and reaching all of the students, we really give them that opportunity to see what they can do.

“Leadership is about the little things,” she said. “It’s not just about being the president of a club or the captain of the team. At this level, we’re talking about holding the door open for someone or not kicking the book your friend in front of you dropped, but picking it up. We want them to think about those leadership opportunities while they are growing and developing in their schools and their communities.”

The CCYL program is sponsored by Pitsco, Commerce Bank, USD 250, Watco Co., Dr. Donald Holsinger, Emerging Solutions Now, Kansas Gas Service, Midwest Minerals, Edythe McNally, Pittsburg Noon Kiwanis and The Mazurek Law Office. The Pittsburg Young Professionals group also played a vital role in this year’s program.