Building leaders in Helena: Several adults, students graduate from Leadership Shelby County program
Published 11:14 am Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Story by Stephen Dawkins
Greg Samuels has lived in Helena for about six years, and he has been employed at the University of Montevallo for longer than that. So, Samuels was familiar with Shelby County, but after completing the Leadership Shelby County program, Samuels said he realizes how much he could learn about the place he calls home—and the people who live here.
Samuels was one of 10 members of the Helena community who were part of Leadership Shelby County’s 2023 class. And six more high school juniors from Helena completed this year’s Youth Leadership Shelby County program, making the city as well represented—or more so—than any other community in the county.
“It just shows how great our city and community is,” said Helena Mayor Brian Puckett, who was among the city’s Leadership Shelby County contingent. “There are leaders all throughout our community.”
Puckett had been nominated previously for Leadership Shelby County but put it off because of his numerous responsibilities. After completing the program, Puckett said he realizes the program’s importance and the benefits it provides to participants and the county in general.
“For me, the biggest thing were the relationships I built. You think you know some of these people, but then to do a nine-month course with them, you really grow those relationships. That is so important—knowing that I have others that I can pick up the phone and call and get trusted information,” Puckett said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn about yourself, learn about the county, and learn about others and their profession that are in your class.”
Leadership Shelby County is designed to connect and empower Shelby County business and community members, enhance their leadership skills and inspire them to be active and informed community leaders. LSC alumni serve their communities as elected officials, non-profit directors, educators, and community advocates, among other capacities.
After an Opening Retreat in September 2022, the class spent one full day each subsequent month learning about various topics and sharing ideas. Sessions included Shelby County Government Day, Education Day, Justice Day, Health and Community Services Day, Economic Development Day, Government Day, and DiscoverShelby Day. A graduation celebration was then held on May 9 to celebrate completing the program.
Samuels was another member of the 2023 class. Samuels started at the University of Montevallo in 2014 as an assistant professor after relocating from Tampa, Florida. Samuels moved to Helena in 2017. During his time at UM, he has added to his responsibilities the role of chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Samuels said that as he researched the Leadership Shelby County program, he was impressed by the list of previous graduates and their “trajectory for greatness.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, this thing has been around for a long time,’” he said. “I was so honored.”
Samuels described the Helena contingent as a “community within a community,” and noted that he was excited to have the opportunity to get to know fellow residents on a deeper level. He also enjoyed learning about Shelby County’s history, recreation opportunities, education and government services. “I felt small in terms of the inner workings around me, but at the same time, I felt like I could be an asset,” he said. “I felt like there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know.”
One session in particular that stood out to Samuels was Justice Day, which included a visit inside the Shelby County Jail. Samuels recalls as a child when he and his father visited a relative in jail, but his father had him wait outside.
“I went in jail for the first time on Justice Day, and I saw a lot of people who look like me,” he said. “That was the most impactful thing of the entire leadership program. I felt privilege, I felt shame, and felt I should try to do something to help. But I also felt hopeful.”
A common perception of the judicial system might be that it exists solely to punish people, but Samuels said he heard from those who work in the system that they try to do what’s best even for offenders.
“One of the most impactful things I heard was when people come to the end of the judicial system, sometimes they just need help before they get sent to jail,” he said. “Those experiences and people helped me think differently.”
Samuels said he appreciated the diversity of the Leadership Shelby County class and thought it would produce a benefit for all involved.
“Diversity, equity and inclusion is my area,” he said. “I feel like there is potential for the future of this county, but DEI—not just race but also just the working class in Shelby County—we’re trying, we’re getting better, but I think there’s still room for growth.”
Anna Beth Goodman and Riley Hollabaugh, meanwhile, were among the Helena students who completed Youth Leadership Shelby County this year. The Youth Leadership Shelby County program is designed to encourage young people to be socially, conscientious leaders of the future, and in many ways mirrors the adult program.
Goodman said a neighbor encouraged her to apply for the program. “I had no idea what I was getting into, but it turned out to be a great opportunity,” she said.
Goodman and Hollabaugh said that while they were familiar with the other Helena participants, they didn’t know them well—but became good friends through the program.
Goodman said the day that stood out for her was Government Day in Columbiana. “I had no idea how many jobs were available on the government side of Shelby County. When I think government, I think city council and the mayor, but there is so much more to government,” she said.
Goodman said she hopes to begin a career in health care, and the Youth Leadership Shelby County program gave her an opportunity to tour a hospital and learn about those careers.
Youth Leadership Shelby County participants are split into groups and tasked with developing projects. Both Goodman and Hollabaugh were part of a group that chose as its project to work with Arc of Shelby County, which benefits people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The group volunteered at a REACT party hosted by the organization. “It was a really great experience, and it was a lot of fun,” Goodman said.
The group also organized a shoe drive, placing bins in various schools including Helena High School where students could donate old shoes to benefit Arc of Shelby County. The organization’s shoe recycling program provides work-based learning experiences for people with disabilities and raises funds for the organization.
Hollabaugh said her grandmother, who has completed the LSC program, encouraged her to apply.
“I was hoping to meet a bunch of new people, and it was really a new experience for me,” she said. “I’m in Helena Teen Council, which is similar with meeting new people, but they’re all from my school, so I’ve never done anything like (Youth Leadership Shelby County).”
Hollabaugh said she knew Youth Leadership would be a unique experience when, shortly after the beginning of the Opening Retreat, the students were split into groups and began team-building exercises.
“We really get to know each other and trust each other really within like 10 minutes of meeting each other,” she said.
To learn more about the Leadership Shelby County and Youth Leadership Shelby County programs, visit Leadershipshelbycounty.com.
Leadership Shelby County 2023 graduates from Helena
Youth Leadership Shelby County 2023 graduates from Helena
Anna Beth Goodman