Woodbury Community Foundation program invites students to flourish.
Woodbury is filled with talent and bright minds, but there’s one specific program catering to help those capabilities expand. The Youth Engagement Leadership Academy (YELA), sponsored by the Woodbury Community Foundation, is an initiative to help upcoming high school graduates succeed in their community.
“YELA is a five-week service learning, leadership development and entrepreneurial program. So its mission is to develop incoming seniors and help them become more service and community-minded. While also giving them some options to serve in the future,” says Matthew Johnson, YELA program coordinator.
The classes, some of which started this month, are offered to all incoming graduates, who are residents of Woodbury. “We’ve had students from East Ridge [High School], Woodbury [High School], Cretin[-Derham Hall] and Stillwater [Area High School] participate last year, but they all lived in the city of Woodbury,” Johnson says.
The five-week program meets once per week, and each week is dedicated to a different topic for two hours, partnering with a wide range of organizations across Woodbury. “The first class is Woodbury of the past [and] in the future,” Johnson says. “That’s in collaboration with the Woodbury Historical Society … Shelly Schafer [came] in to talk about our current demographics and future projections.”
Week two is dedicated to careers in the community. “We talk about the path to get to certain jobs in the community,” he says, noting that’s in partnership with the Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce. “There are some different entrepreneurs and professionals that come in and talk about what they do and how they got into that role.”
Week three focuses on service and community engagement. YELA has speakers come in from the Woodbury Rotary Club, the Woodbury Lions Club and local food shelves.
Week four is a favorite for everyone, Johnson says. “This is the week we focus on public safety,” he says. “We meet at the Hero Center in conjunction with our Woodbury public safety team, [and] there are representatives from the paramedics, police and fire departments.”
Finally, the last week is focused on the elected officials, which ties into graduation—from there the celebration is an open conversation on how YELA participants can stay engaged in their community while striving to achieve their professional and personal goals.
“We’re trying to broaden their horizons as to what service opportunities exist in our community and to help them see there’s a lot in the form of service,” Johnson says. “We hope that after YELA, wherever they should land in the future, you know, after college and in whatever they choose to do in their life, to be engaged citizens in the community.”
YELA program graduate Doug Ossanna says the mission of YELA is where his values are aligned. “I originally joined YELA after asking Matthew to come to speak at the real estate and investment club I was a president of,” Ossanna says. “After he introduced me to YELA, I knew it was the right fit for my future. I wanted to break into the real estate field, and I felt like YELA was a way for me to help develop my leadership skills and also learn about the community I live in.”
Ossanna says that YELA opened his eyes to what being a community leader means and how to incorporate that into a future position. “I think it helped push me to get my real estate licenses and be more involved. I am also planning to attend [University of St. Thomas] in the fall of 2023 to possibly pursue finance,” Ossanna says. “Overall, the program was really eye-opening to me, and I gained a new perspective of the work it takes to make the community of Woodbury great.”