Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Jason Winters saw a future problem for his county.
“Young people were going off to college and getting the educations, but then they were not seriously thinking about coming back here to work,” he said.
“In the past we have done Leadership Chattooga classes through the Chamber of Commerce, but over the last few years we’ve had a tougher time finding young adults who would participate,” Winters said. “So our thinking was to go back a little earlier and target young people as juniors and seniors in high school, before they go to college, and try to show them some of the advantages to living and working here.”
That led to the commissioner creating the 2011 Leadership Chattooga program and funding it with about $1,300 in county money.
Winters emphasized local success stories such as attorney Bobby Lee Cook and businessman David Parker, both lifelong county residents.
“Bobby Lee Cook could be practicing law anywhere in the world, but he chose to stay here,” Winters said. “The same is true for David Parker of Parker Systems. He runs a high-tech fiber optics company that could be located anywhere. I think the kids were really impressed by what they saw and what they heard from those two men.”
In the spring six Chattooga High and six Trion High students formed the initial class. They toured area businesses and attractions, met local civic and business leaders and visited Atlanta to better understand the impact the county had on a state level.
Among places the leadership class visited were Parker Systems and Mohawk Carpets in Summerville, Mount Vernon Mills in Trion, the law firm of Cook and Connelly and the Pennville home of famed folk artist Howard Finster.
“The tour of Mount Vernon was really eye-opening,” Chattooga High senior Matthew Pace said. “I didn’t realize how many jobs there were and what a diversity of jobs was there. From management to running the machines, there are a lot of things they do.”
The group also volunteered its services to tornado relief efforts in Trenton, working several hours in a warehouse helping to unload, sort and pack up donations.
Trion senior Laurie Thompson was surprised by the cultural impact of Finster’s work.
“I had heard about him, but I hadn’t seen his artwork before,” she said.
Sylvia-Lee Keziah, who works in the commissioner’s office, said she was pleased with the first class.
“We have received wonderful feedback from the faculty at the two schools and from the students and their parents,” she said. “I think the students will look at this county differently now.”
Pace said living in Chattooga County always has been an option for him.
“I love this county and I’m proud of it, so living here is always something I’ve thought about,” he said. “I don’t want to lose that connection, and this class made me feel that even stronger.”
Jimmy Espy is based in Dalton, Ga. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.