Learning to lead: High schoolers participate in Chamber of Commerce program

A previous group of Tomorrow’s Leaders Today students practicing intubation at Regional Hospital of Scranton as part of Health Care Day. From left, Calvin Zhang, Dunmore High School; Gianna Giumento, Mid Valley Secondary Center; Sarah Siddiqui, Abington Heights High School; Taralyn Reilly, Valley View High School; Morgan Faist, Lackawanna Trail Jr/Sr High School and Celeste Orchard, Western Wayne High School.

Like high schoolers across the country, Carbondale Area junior Sophia Calzola’s opportunities for extracurricular activities shrank after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and turned lives upside down.

Once the 16-year-old found out about Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, the adolescent leadership program sponsored by Leadership Lackawanna, she decided to apply.

“I wanted to participate because it was something new for me and I knew that I hadn’t really socialized in a while so being around new people and new ideas was just going to be a fun experience for me,” said Sophia.

Students from districts in Lackawanna County, as well as Western Wayne and Lackawanna Trail school districts, meet once a month to learn about real-world experiences in fields including science, technology, engineering, arts, math, philanthropy, financial literacy and heath care.

While the program encourages students from all eligible districts to apply, only 40 students are chosen, making it incredibly selective.

“We’ve been growing and improving the program and it makes me sad to turn students away,” said Executive Director of Leadership Lackawanna Nicole Morristell, 40. Leadership Lackawanna is affiliated with The Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.

Those who are able to score a spot within the program this year found it beneficial and enjoyable.

“I was interested in working with my peers, working with people who have the same interests as I do, and making myself better so that I can help people,” said Katelyn Ainey, 17, from Valley View.

Emma Mazzoni, 16, from Valley View, and Angelica Nowak, 16, from Lakeland, applied because they found it intriguing.

“I thought it would be fun and it just sounded like a genuinely interesting thing,” said Emma.

Carbondale Area student Alyssa Cosklo, 16, felt TLT was the perfect way to start preparing for college.

“It seemed like a good opportunity with college coming up, and the chamber building TLT is through is big with scholarships, so it was a good way to get introduced to that at an early age,” said Alyssa.

Angelica found the financial literacy portion of the program especially useful.

“The finance and credit stuff is useful because we don’t do that in school, unless you actually take the class, so when you go into the real world, it’s sink or swim,” said Angelica.

Katelyn found the program encouraged her to communicate better.

“We’re learning how to communicate better in a virtual environment which is going to help with communication in real life, too. You’re going to pay more attention and that’s something everyone could use,” said Katelyn.

TLT’s goal is for students to become citizens who actively participate in and care for their community. This is achieved through the three pillars of TLT: philanthropy, skills and leadership. There’s a specific focus on philanthropy since high school students have little knowledge about it, Morristell said.

In order for students to develop that understanding of philanthropy, TLT gives them the opportunity to choose a local nonprofit organization to receive a grant.

The students and the Scranton Area Foundation, a local community trust, work together to create a grant application giving local nonprofits a chance to apply if they fit the students’ criteria. This year’s focus was the opioid epidemic, teen behavioral issues and environmental clean up.

Morristell feels that the students benefit because they have the opportunity to work with nonprofits, making them more noticeable among their peers.

Once the application closes, students are put into small groups to create a presentation about why that particular nonprofit deserves the grant.

Like most things this year, TLT looks a little different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than taking students to different locations across Lackawanna County, sessions are held on group Zoom calls where they participate in virtual activities.

While some students are disappointed they do not get the hands-on experience and in-person connection their predecessors received, they are still enjoying the program.

“Being online is challenging because you can tell TLT is dependent on being in person so being the first class that is online is kind of a challenge, but they’re still making it fun and interesting,” said Alyssa.

Emma expressed similar challenges in regard to the social aspect of the program.

“There’s something about being in person with someone and coming face-to-face so it’s easier to take in what they’re saying and get a better idea of them,” said Emma.

Morristell feels similarly, though she said the program still offers an incredible experience.

“I feel confident that we are offering a unique and competitive leadership program. Our program is stellar and competitive and they [students] are getting a great experience just like past students,” said Morristell.