Skip to content

Initiative celebrates next generation leaders at Youth Leadership Program closing ceremony

Aug. 4, 2015 – Twenty-six rising high school seniors who completed the North Carolina Community Development Initiative’s 2015 Youth Leadership Program were recognized at a luncheon ceremony held in Raleigh July 30. Each student completed a six-week, full-time internship with a high-performing N.C. community organization and participated in leadership-building activities throughout the program.

“These important internships allow young people to experience first-hand what it’s like to be immersed in a work environment and to be an actual member of a team working toward a goal, and that is how you change a community,” said Initiative President and CEO Tara Kenchen, addressing the students, their parents and host-site employers who attended the ceremony.

After a music performance by program participant Caleb Edkins, intern Vanna Labi shared her experience working with Green Opportunities in Buncombe County.

“My experience was life-changing,” said Labi, recounting how going door-to-door to recruit members for a work training program changed her perspective on civic engagement.

“I realized that all of my preconceived ideas about low-income populations were misperceptions. I saw for myself how people could be stuck in situations they didn’t control. I could never have understood this if not for this program, and because of this I will be a much more effective advocate for change,” said Labi.

Don Phoenix, vice president for the southern region of NeighborWorks America in Atlanta, praised the program for preparing new leaders and expressed his organization’s commitment to helping see the program continue.

“The millennials are here. They think differently and operate differently. It is appropriate for the Initiative to make them aware of what’s out there for their future, how to prepare and how to inject themselves into a new environment,” said Phoenix.

Suzette Ross, self-sufficiency program manager for the Cleveland County Development Corp. in Shelby, shared the experience of a program host site. “These young people are willing to experience new things and are appreciative of the opportunity. We have the opportunity to give them a chance to serve others and to learn how a nonprofit organization works,” Ross said.

Ross thanked her intern, Sarah Hunt, on behalf of the mayor of Shelby, the chief of police and other city officials. “We were all in awe of Sarah, who made herself readily available, worked from her heart and was a perfect role model for the children she worked with during her internship,” she said.

Keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell, pastor of Grace AME Zion Church in Raleigh, thanked the Initiative, parents and host sites for providing the students with such an important opportunity at a pivotal time in their lives. “You are at a crucial juncture in your life,” Staccato told the interns. “The marketplace is more competitive and we now live in a global community. There is not time to mess around. Now is the time to lay the foundation for leadership in your lives by working hard and not being afraid to be different.” Powell said.

Powell encouraged students to find out other people’s stories. “Everybody who has gotten anywhere in life has been through something to get there: scholarship, hard work, adversity. You need to know people’s stories so you can see that adversity builds character,” he said. Powell used his own journey from Hallsboro, a small town in North Carolina, to demonstrate that “Where you come from doesn’t matter, it’s where you are going that matters.”

In addition to internships, students visited the Institute for Emerging Issues in Raleigh and International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, and they attended leadership sessions discussing financial literacy, leadership principles, entrepreneurship, communication and social justice issues. Students also met with program alumni who shared how the program contributed positively to their life experience.

“Five years ago, before I started the program, I could not have imagined I would graduate from college and head straight to a well-paying job,” said Cyreeta Hanna, a recent graduate of Elizabeth City State University and a 2010 program participant. “Because of the confidence and skills I gained during the youth leadership program, I knew to push myself in college, get involved with organizations and be a leader. The Initiative is the reason I am successful today.” Hanna recently accepted a position with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Participants and their host organizations are:

Bertie County
Myeesha Perry, Self Help Credit Union

Buncombe County
Vanna Labi, Green Opportunities

Cabarrus County
Chelsea Amaya, Prosperity Unlimited Inc.
Jesse Perucho, Prosperity Unlimited Inc.

Carteret County
Douglas Green, Coastal Community Action Inc.

Cleveland County 
Malik Beam, Cleveland County Community Development Corp.
Sarah Hunt, Cleveland County Community Development Corp.

Cumberland County 
Lailah Johnson, Center for Economic Empowerment and Development

Davidson County 
Ethan Houser, Lexington Housing Community Development Corp.

Durham County 
Chidera Ezuma-Igwe, The Institute

Henderson County
Megan Edwards, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy
MaryKent Wolff, Housing Assistance Corp.

Mecklenburg County
Austin Bennett, Young Black Males Leadership Alliance

Northampton County
Tatyana Barnes, Self Help Credit Union
Andrew Belgreat Jr., El Pueblo Inc.  

Orange County
Masiel Bautista, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Youth Forward 
Jasmin Flack, EmPOWERment Inc.

Pitt County
Stephan Cherry, Metropolitan Housing & CDC

Robeson County
Whitney Cummings, Lumbee Guaranty Bank
Caleb Edkins, Center for Community Action
Kristian Mckenith, Center for Community Action

Union County
Tierra Bivens, Monroe Union Community Development Corp.

Wake County
Carolyn Chen, Institute for Emerging Issues
Yema Kpaka, Passage Home Inc. 
Zachary Walker, Institute for Emerging Issues

Wayne County
Nahjla Davis-Jones, Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Corp.

The N. C. Community Development Initiative leads North Carolina’s collaborative community economic development effort, driving innovations, investment and action to create prosperous, sustainable communities. For more information visit

Recommended read

Initiative receives $50,000 Oak Foundation grant for youth leadership development