By Debbie Nelson
All of the buzz is about Millennials, but have you heard much about Generation Z? According to Forbes, Generation Z is defined as individuals born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. This group of young people makes up approximately 25 percent of our U.S. population, which is a larger cohort than Baby Boomers or Millennials.
These motivated digital natives have an entrepreneurial spirit, work hard, value opportunities for growth, care about their communities and causes, and are deeply concerned about the future. While Columbia is fortunate to have many organizations that recognize the importance of developing future leaders, you may not know about Youth Corps. This unique leadership experience is designed for 9th and 10th grade students in Richland and Lexington Counties. These members of Generation Z are selected through a competitive process. Once selected, these 36 students must commit to full participation in this rigorous and impactful yearlong educational program.
Jeff Becraft, Youth Corps’ executive director, shared the organization’s philosophy: “At Youth Corps, we believe that young people are created to do great things. Circumstances are challenges to be overcome, not shackles to be bound by. Young people are not lacking in ability; they just need vision, and that is what unlocks the enthusiasm within them.” For the past 13 years, Youth Corps has partnered with the community to unleash young leaders and equip them with the tools to live a life of influence.
Built on a foundation of strong relationships and trust, Youth Corps kicks off its year with a Leadership Weekend at Camp Bob Cooper. “It was during this time that I knew I had made the right decision about participating,” explained Reid Taylor, who graduated from Youth Corps in May of 2017. “At the start of the retreat, I didn’t know anyone, but by the end of the weekend, everyone had come together. I loved the diversity of the group, which offered me the chance to get to know people that I wouldn’t normally hang out with. Youth Corps encouraged each of us to spend time with folks who were different than we were.”
The rest of the Youth Corps year runs from September through May. Each month, students experience one of nine modules led by community leaders. The topic areas include Philanthropy & Nonprofits, Crimes, Victims & Justice, Media & Journalism, Legislation & Government, Business & Economics, Investment & Finance, Career & Higher Education, and Arts & Culture. Participants attend a series of weekly meetings for each module. Generally, the first week focuses on learning about the topic, while the remaining weeks are designed to be hands-on. At the core of Youth Corps is offering an understanding of real issues and the tools necessary to actually have an impact. This philosophy is directly aligned with what motivates Generation Z-ers.
One of Reid’s favorite Youth Corps modules was Legislation & Government for this very reason. “In early January, we learned about the legislative process. We then prepared for a visit to the State House to meet with delegation members. As a group, we did research on Jacob Hall’s Law and then held mock meetings with each other to discuss the issues. It was amazing to see the difference we as young leaders could make when we finally met with our representatives and shared our views on this legislation.”
Another program component that excites Youth Corps participants is its focus on entrepreneurship. Each year, the participants divide into four business groups to create a Valentine’s Flower Business. Starting in the fall, they develop strategies for sales and marketing. The group is responsible for everything from pre-sales to arranging the flowers and to ultimately distributing the arrangements. Each business group develops a budget that includes operating expenses and licensing fees. Profits are then divided between charitable donations and the team members. Reid served as the CEO for his team. “My role was to encourage everyone to do their best and they did," he explained.
Reid and his family are perhaps Youth Corp’s biggest advocates. His sister Savannah participated nine years ago and his sister Elizabeth just graduated in May. After high school, Savannah went to Furman and Duke and currently owns her own business in New York City. She attributes much of her success to the skills she developed through Youth Corps. “My younger sister, Elizabeth, has gained so much self-confidence and is now comfortable communicating her ideas with pride,” reflected Reid. This past year, Reid and Savannah got to see their younger sister in action when they went back to serve as team leaders at Leadership Weekend.
In summary, Reid shared the following about his experience: "Youth Corps gave me a vision, something that no other extracurricular, honors class, or paycheck ever gave me. This vision guided my decisions and pursuits, and provided me with unique opportunities I wouldn’t have known to aim for without this investment in my future. For me, Youth Corps encouraged greatness, enabled me to succeed, and equipped me with the skills necessary to overcome any obstacle."
As you can see, Reid is wise beyond his years. This intelligent, polite, and self-motivated rising junior at Spring Hill High School is already an inspiring leader. Thank you to Youth Corps for recognizing his potential and that of the other talented teens in the program. Your investment in them will not go unnoticed…and should give us all hope for the future.