Leadership Chenango

Melissa Stagnaro

As I look back on the last nine months, I’m overwhelmed by all I have seen, learned and experienced about life, leadership and Chenango County through my participation in Leadership Chenango. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to participate in this amazing, un-paralleled program.

I started on my Leadership Chenango journey in October with the mistaken notion that I was well versed in all things Chenango. After all, I have called this corner of the world home for a good portion of my life. And in my professional role as a reporter for The Evening Sun, I’ve written about many facets of our local community – from business and agriculture, to education, social issues and current events.

But once our class began, it didn’t take me long to realize there was plenty left for me to learn.

During the course of this program, my classmates and I have had the opportunity to delve deeper into the social issues, educational systems, governmental structure, diversity of business and industry and our area’s rich agricultural heritage than even I imagined possible. It has changed me, as much as I know it has changed each of them. Without a doubt, it has been for the better for now, we have a clearer understanding of the challenges our community faces, the opportunities we have before us, and the type of people required to effect lasting change.

Only a few short months before the start of our class, my eyes were opened to the true extent of poverty in Chenango County. But it was only after visiting Roots and Wings, speaking with Chenango County Director of Social Services Bette Osborne, listening to local law enforcement and judicial officials as well as representatives from our local hospital, that I was truly able to comprehend what poverty means in our area. Because there are a myriad of social and economic costs associated with poverty that our entire society must bear.

Serving the impoverished segment of our population, helping them on the road to self-sufficiency, are a multitude of non-profit organizations. These groups, as well as the dedicated individuals who staff them and the volunteers they call upon to fulfill their missions, are a credit to our community. But they are in financially precarious situations at the moment. At a time when the demand for their services is on the rise, they are watching the state and federal funding sources, on which they have long depended, dry up before their eyes. The number of people willing to step forward and donate their time and effort as volunteers is also on the decline, making it doubly difficult for these groups to meet the growing need in our community.

We have businesses, too, which are struggling in the face of our current fiscal crisis as local, state and global market forces contrive to make their continued operation a challenge. I speak of high taxes, the worst recession our country has faced since the Great Depression and the dumping of foreign products on our markets. Our state and federal governments seem to have reached new heights – or shall I say, new lows – in their inefficiencies. And despite the high rate of unemployment, our local businesses still struggle to recruit and retain qualified workers. Our farmers struggle to make ends meet on milk prices which fall far short of the cost of production for many.

As a society, we debate whether tapping into the natural gas reserves beneath our feet, will be the answer to our economic prayers or our environmental downfall.

But, thankfully, it isn’t all doom and gloom. We are blessed to live in a part of the world, filled with abundant natural resources and seemingly boundless natural beauty. We had the chance to see that first hand during our three bus trips.

On those same trips, we also had a chance to witness the full diversity of businesses, industry and agriculture which calls Chenango County home. Yes, some are struggling, but they haven’t given up. And others are truly thriving, capitalizing on the creativity and commitment of their employees, and in many cases embracing their past, in order to rise to success.

If I see one clear area where we can make a difference in this county, it is by further encouraging economic development. We need to help our existing businesses expand and grow, while at the same time helping other, newer ventures, to take root. Not only would this bring new jobs, but it will also create new wealth in our area. It’s really a make or break, since without growth in business, industry and agriculture, even more of our population will fall below the poverty line. Reform will be needed on the state and government levels as well, because we need to make New York more business friendly. If we don’t, we will drive businesses and jobs out, not attract or create them.

It will take solid leadership, of course, to affect change in any of these areas. And thankfully, as a result of our leadership book reviews and class discussions, I think all of us have a clearer, more defined understanding of the characteristics any good leader must possess.

Many of my fellow classmates already exhibit these characteristics, and it has been a privilege to work alongside them these past few months. I believe I have learned as much from them as I have from our class sessions, guest speakers, individual interviews and field trips. I’d like to think we’ve all learned from each other.

Without them as my companions on this journey – and being a part of Leadership Chenango has indeed been a journey – this experience would have not been the same. Each of my classmates, with their diverse backgrounds, has added something unique to the program. Seeing our community through their eyes has given me a new perspective on many things.

I would be remiss in my synopsis of my experience with Leadership Chenango without the woman who has been our guide, our mentor and our “mother hen” over the last months: Judie Wright. Her commitment to shaping the future leaders of Chenango County has been an inspiration to all of us.

I am still unsure how I will put my new found knowledge to good use. In many ways, I’ve already begun to use it in my role at The Evening Sun, as I’ve written about a number of the topics we’ve covered in our class sessions. I’d like to think that in a way I’m already making a difference in our community by lending a hand wherever I can, bringing social issues to light in my writing, reporting on worthwhile community events and highlighting those who are doing good in our community.

Ideas are already forming in my mind at how best I can use my abilities and my passion for our community to do even more. And as a proud member of the Leadership Chenango Class of 2010, I feel a responsibility and an obligation to do just that.

Thank you to my editor, Jeff Genung, and our publisher, Dick Snyder, for the opportunity to participate in this program. This truly has been a life changing experience for me.

Follow me on Twitter … @evesunmelissa.