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I’m glad the chamber is continuing its leadership program
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

I was so pleased to see the announcement from the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce about the youth leadership program for the next school year. First, it’s a wonderful program and secondly, it felt good to hear something that was not being cancelled or postponed because of the pandemic.

I happen to know a young woman who had attended both the youth and adult leadership programs in Hall County and I decided to call her up.

“Hey, Daddy,” said the voice on the other end. My daughter, Ashton, was a participant in the youth leadership program when she was a student at Johnson High School. She told me that the youth leadership program was a great foundation for her current work in government relations for Augusta University. Her participation in the adult program was the icing on the cake.

“I learned so much about our business community,” she said. “I also learned the value of economic development to the local economy.” Interestingly, she was in the high school program during the economic downturn of 2008. “I saw how the chamber worked to help local businesses survive the economic stress.”

The coming year’s class will include a student from the home-school community. It already includes high school students from all of the public and private high schools in Hall County.

“If the students really immerse themselves in the program, it will be an eye-opening experience,” she added.

She said there are things that will always stand out in her mind, such as a visit to the county jail and seeing criminal hearings on a virtual connection.

She shared with me the importance of the role models that she worked with. Among those she mentioned was Kit Dunlap, the chamber president, Kay Parks of Jackson EMC and Denise Deal, who at that time was heading the Vision 2030 program of the chamber.

“All of them influenced me in different ways, but I consider them all to be mentors,” Ashton said. “It was instilled in me that I could accomplish great things by following in their respective paths.”

Communities everywhere have a need for bright, young leaders. These programs can hone the skills of those who have a good educational background, but lack the first-hand knowledge of the infrastructure and government of their hometowns. Ashton was asked to stay on with the chamber for a high school internship. She learned how to communicate well with business leaders and how to organize community events. 

As a daddy watching from the cheap seats, I saw her develop a strong level of maturity that has served her well.

Ashton went on to graduate from the University of West Georgia and was named one of the university’s “30 under 30,” a program that recognizes the accomplishments of graduates of the university who are under 30. She recently completed the yearlong class of the Zell Miller Institute. She attend the Leadership Hall program while she was on the staff of state Sen. Butch Miller.

If you have children in high school in Gainesville and Hall County, I highly recommend the youth leadership program for them.

Ashton’s current job has her based in Atlanta, but because of the statewide reach of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, she has responsibilities in all corners of the state.

“Gainesville and Hall County is home and will always be,” she said, “and I will always be grateful for the preparation the two leadership programs provided.”

The torch has been passed several times and now we have a new group of young leaders ready to launch their next race to greatness. I salute you all.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on