Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Leadership group finding ways to improve Vallejo

Leadership group finding ways to improve Vallejo
By Sarah Rohrs
Posted: 04/04/2010 12:30:51 AM PDT

Melissa Brosas of Windsor Valley Care Center and Greg Peterson of Solano County land trust at the Omega Boys and Girls Club during a Class 3 exploration of human services operations. (Courtesy Photo)
At first the best part of Leadership Vallejo for Sandy Stowes was learning about her city's secret treasures, its history, rich naval past and its schools, government and arts.

Over the past three years Stowes has helped steer Leadership Vallejo into the future, and is convinced the organization can play a role in Vallejo's rejuvenation.

"We see so many strong leaders coming out of Leadership Vallejo," said Stowes, a current board member. "We can help to enhance our city and bring it back."

Leadership Vallejo is based on a nationwide program designed to educate and train leaders to make lasting changes.

Since its first class in 2007, nearly 45 Vallejoans have taken part in the nine-month program, while others have served as board members. The ripple effect has led graduates joining civic, school, business, art and theater organizations.

Current board president Linda Kane said Leadership Vallejo's greatest accomplishment has been to become more visible in the community.

Stowes said her Leadership Vallejo experience led to her chairing the Vallejo school district's committee that last year examined school closures and property sales.

In the last three years, other class members have secured Planning Commission appointments, and joined service clubs.

They have also participated in efforts to revitalize downtown, stage the annual Relay for Life cancer fundraiser, joined church and school groups, and helped with July 4 and Juneteenth celebrations
as well as the City Park playground construction project.

"It is hard to go to any significant event around Vallejo these days and not find (Leadership Vallejo) folks involved as volunteers, organizers, helpers, and idea people," board member Doug Webster said.

At a time when Vallejo has received negative publicity over bankruptcy, crime and other issues, class and board members say they focus on positive activities and attitudes about the city.

The program attracts people who love Vallejo and want to take on tangible projects that promise results, said current class member Paula Strickland, who helped launch an ongoing effort to clean and beautify the waterfront.

"I think that you're seeing all over Vallejo, and in the last couple of years, a groundswell of people who are interested in volunteering for the community and interested in solving the problems that we have," Strickland said.

Creating change

The program has led to such projects as new crosswalks on Tennessee Street, graffiti-abatement, economic development efforts and volunteer database for organizations to tap into. There also is student tutoring and academies in high schools, among others.

The program, founding member Ian Kaiser said, gives class members access to a large network of people and groups, and offers training in working effectively with others.

"Leadership Vallejo gives you a foundation and a bird's eye view of Vallejo," Kaiser said. "It gives you an overview rather than considering things from your own silo; and it helps determine your passion."

Kaiser helped spearhead a business-school partnership and stage an Education Summit at Touro University with support from the Ford Foundation.

With economic development a key issue, an entrepreneurial assistance program aims to help struggling small businesses, current class member Greg Peterson said. Class members will analyze several businesses, plus consider available marketing, sales, customer service, operations, finance and other resources, he said.

A separate co-marketing strategy will involve the Empress Theatre, and fostering business alliances to strengthen the downtown, Peterson said.

A resource

As Leadership Vallejo completes its third year, the goal is to double class sizes and get at least 100 community leaders trained, Webster said.

The fourth year, Kane said, will involve a greater focus on leadership skills, plus economic development efforts and school programs.

Founding board member Russ Barnes recalls Leadership Vallejo began with a handful of determined business and civic leaders who secured a $5,000 seed grant from the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce to get started. Some 22 people took part in the first class.

"We had nothing but we worked hard and said this is what we want," Barnes said. Initial steering class members spent a year drafting by-laws, securing a nonprofit status, setting up committees and finally staging the first classes, he said.

Fundraising also will be a key issue in the program's future. Each participant's training cost is $1,150, but they need pay only $150, Webster said, the remainder coming from service club and business donations.

Those wishing to join the program can apply online at www.leadershipvallejo.com. Board members interview prospective candidates and make their selection, aiming to create a class with a broad representation of Vallejo's ethnic and economic make-up, Webster said.

Day-long classes over the nine-month program give class members a base of knowledge of Vallejo, including its labor issues, how city and county government works, and a look at schools and arts and entertainment elements.

Participants strive to set political differences aside and, instead, focus on a common goal of fostering Vallejo's strengths and opportunities, Barnes said.

For Stowes, the class opened her eyes to Vallejo. She learned about its founding fathers and its economic development efforts, and even got her into the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum for the first time.

As an original member of a group focused on Tennessee Street, Stowes met with business owners and surrounding residents, and helped with safety measures and getting flags and banners put up. Work continues as the group focuses on planting new trees, and putting up lights and art work.

"We wanted to do something that showed and had visible results very quickly," Stowes said.

"That's important to Vallejo to show we can really make a difference and really make something visible," she added.

Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at srohrs@timesheraldonline.com or (707) 553-6832.