Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
8:59 am
October 17, 2017

Shaping Lake’s Leaders


“Criminal Justice Day is one of my favorite days,” beamed Leah Norris, president of the Board of Regents for Leadership Lake County and Class of 2012 participant. “We got to shoot guns within the sheriff’s office shooting range.” Her thrilling day also involved demos by a SWAT team, canine unit, and bomb squad. In her normal life, Norris is the assistant manager of the Lake County Fair Association.

“I really enjoyed the internships,” said Sheri Olson, Director of Development at South Lake Hospital and Class of 2003 member. Class participants chose two internships that were outside of their normal profession. Olson visited the Medical Examiner’s Office and observed an autopsy. “I have a new appreciation for TV shows like CSI,” she said.

It’s not everyday you get a chance to witness a police SWAT team in action, maneuvering armored vehicles and surveillance robots, or observe an autopsy. Yet both are standard procedure for those lucky enough to participate in Leadership Lake County, a county-initiated program begun in 1991 are not only exciting and insightful, but serves a significant purpose.

According to Norris, Leadership Lake County is a program that educates, inspires, and ultimately develops impassioned leaders within the county.

The membership application states the goal “to provide a forum for participants to increase their awareness and commitment to the development of the Lake County community, providing a greater understanding of the complex social and economic issues that are shaping the future of Lake County and its residents… [so that] class participants are better oriented to direct the county in the future.”

How it Works

Leadership Lake County is a two-year program. The first year begins in September with a “Meet & Greet,” followed in October with orientation, and then by a team-building exercise. For the next seven months, members participate in day-long class sessions centered around a specific Lake County industry.

During these one-day classes, Leadership Lake visits different aspects of the county, such as education, media, health and human services, health care, agriculture, criminal justice and law enforcement, government and economic development, plus a quality-of-life day that wraps up the last session, followed by graduation in May.

During the second year, the class does a project to give back to the community. Class of 2014 made a monetary donation to build a playground for the Early Learning Coalition. Class of 2015 donated to Building Blocks. Another previous class planned a concert to benefit Habitat for Humanity.

Norris and her Class of 2012 established a scholarship for future prospective participants who wanted to experience Leadership Lake County.

Class in Session

The material covered is extensive and intensive. Consider some of the session agenda provided for the Class of 2014:

On Criminal Justice Day, they visited the Public Safety Complex in Astatula, with presentations by the Sheriff Gary S. Borders, Fifth Judicial Circuit Public Defender, Mike Graves, and Fifth Judicial Circuit Assistant State Attorney, Walter Forgie. After the SWAT, HDT, and K-9 demonstrations, the class visited the Lake County Jail.

On Government Day, the Class began at the Lake County Administration Building, and traveled by bus to Senniger Irrigations in Clermont, followed by a visit to Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park in Groveland. They lunched at Wooton Park Pavilion, followed by a tour of the city’s Pavilion on the Lake and a return to the County Administration Building for a mock public hearing.

The extensive coverage and detail surpasses the awareness of even the most seasoned Lake County native.

“I am a lifetime resident of Lake County, so what really caught me off guard was how much I learned about Lake County,” said B.E. Thompson, Director of Development, LifeStream Behavioral Center, Inc. and class member of 2005. “I have been thoroughly involved with the community most of my life. Going through the experience really gave me a broader view of what Lake County has to offer.”

Thompson added, “For me that was an eye-opener because I would have gone into it saying ‘I know everything there is to know about Lake County.’”

He’s not the only one.

“I have lived in South Lake County since 1992. Leadership Lake County took me to areas of the county I haven’t been to before, and it also allowed me to meet a wonderful network of business leaders, community leaders, advocates for Lake County residents throughout the county, many of whom I am still very close to today,” Olson added.

Members learn a great deal about business, beyond what they thought they knew. “What Florida Foods manufactures right here in Lake County was a big surprise to me,” said Thompson. “GT Conveyors was another business surprise. At one time, they were supplying conveyor systems that moved luggage in airports around the entire world.”

Benefits For the Participants

Leadership Lake County is a great way to network and meet people who are passionate about the county and want to learn more. Around since 1991, the alumni base one can network from is expansive.

“Leadership Lake County exposed me to a variety of people I have built personal relationships with, who possess useful leadership skills and valuable connections throughout the county that may be useful in my professional or personal endeavors. I feel confident that I may call on them for consultation on how to handle a challenging situation, both in and out of my profession,” said Olson.

Thompson agrees.

“When I think back to my time at Leadership Lake county — from cruising Lake Harris to visiting Camp Boggy Creek, as well as other nonprofit programs offered to those with special needs — all of those were memorable experiences. But my real takeaway is not only the connections I have been able to make with my class a decade ago—most of whom I am still in contact with—but also the relationships established with graduates from long before, because of the strong alumni association.”

In addition to invaluable connections, Leadership Lake County exposes members to experiences and situations they will never forget, and can pass on to others.

Thompson will always remember Media Day. The session’s activities included reporting on a mock disaster, a bus accident. “We created our own news story on the event, from gathering information on the field, to drafting the story, to publishing it in The Daily Commercial in a limited edition, not available to the general public, only class members,” he recalled.

This past year, the class visited a local TV news station to watch a live broadcast. Every year the curriculum is updated, so no two experiences are ever quite the same. However, the spirit of comradery while learning is always present.

Community impact

According to Thompson, the benefits of the participant and the impact to the community go hand-in-hand, improving the quality of life for everyone that lives here, and growing our future leaders.

Norris agrees. “I think it really molds people’s understanding of what goes on in the county, and how many different civil subsections there are. It gives the leaders a broader view of what is going on so they can make more informed decisions,” she said.

Olson shared Leadership Lake County taught her how to comprehend and discuss county resources more intelligently. “If I am talking to a patient, visitor, or guest at South Lake Hospital, or anywhere where someone asks generally, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Lake County had…’, because of Leadership Lake County, I can respond, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, we do have…’”

Indeed, an alumni’s insight is keener than most, and applicable in highly specialized situations.

“One of the sessions I attended with the Class of 2015 that I will never forget, was Human Services Day at Camp Challenge,” said Norris. The participants partook in the same types of courses the students of Camp Challenge do, and had to do so with a simulated handicap. They would shoot a bow and arrow, but were unable to use their arms, for instance. “The purpose was to get future leaders to better understand the daily challenges those with physical handicaps have to work through,” she said.

Leadership preparation and its impact doesn’t get much better than that.


Class of 2016 Participants

Brian Charles, United Southern Bank
Chris Cheshire, Mulberry Integrative Medicine
David Coté, Akers Media
Justin Crouch, LC Schools
Chris DeLibro, LC Sheriff’s Office
Kim Frazier, Lake Technical College
Joe Iozzi, Leesburg Police Dept.
Mike Latham, GatorSktch Corp. Architects
Chris Love, CenturyLink
Danny McLaughlin, Seacoast Bank
Al Minner, City of Leesburg
James A. Myers, Bowen & Schroth P.A.
David Porter, LC Sheriff’s Office
Ricardo Rojas, Insight Credit Union
Karen Sartele, ReMax Premier Realty
Sarah Thielen, LC Farm Bureau
Brett Tobias, Booth, Ern, Straughan & Hiott, Inc.
Tyler VanAlstine, LC Sheriff’s Office
Charles Vitale, Clermont Police Dept.
Vicki Ward, Lake Sumter State College
Jan Wilson, Lake Eustis Area Chamber
Barb Yaussy, CenterState Bank
Vincent Zaun, South Lake Hospital

About the Author

John Sotomayor was the president of Sotomayor Media Creations, LLC. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from the University of Rochester and attended law school in Washington, D.C. John’s extensive legal, business and media education and experience garnered him numerous awards for his work from the Florida Magazine Association, Florida Press Club and Society of Professional Journalists. His business, Sotomayor Media Creations, LLC was awarded Minority Business of the Year by the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce and the Mary Sue Rich Diversity Award by the City of Ocala in 2010. In 2011, John was named Journalist of the Year by the Chamber. John enjoys travel and his work led him on assignments all over the world, including China, Greece, Turkey and Pakistan. John is also community-minded, having served on numerous boards and committees in Marion County and throughout Florida, including board member of the Florida Press Club. John currently serves as a board member of the Florida Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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