It is no secret that middle school is a time of tumultuous change and transition for young people. Hawkinsville High School junior Lizzy Gainous wants to help make that transition a little easier.

Gainous graduated from the Pulaski Tomorrow Youth Leadership Academy, a program for high school students that evolved through the UGA Archway Partnership in Pulaski County, in conjunction with the UGA J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. Her involvement in that program inspired her to take the skills she learned and apply them to something she is passionate about—mentoring middle school girls.

Girl Talk, an international program that provides free resources to help high school girls mentor girls in middle school, was the framework Gainous was looking for.

She started a Hawkinsville chapter of the program, with the approval of the Hawkinsville High School principal.

Peer-to-peer mentorship is important, Gainous says, because it creates a connection that helps younger girls feel they are understood.

“We (high school girls) have been in the exact same place they are and have recently been through what they’re going through,” she said, “I think we can connect with them on that level better than adults can.”

Gainous says that her experience with the Pulaski Youth Leadership Academy, which grew out of Pulaski Tomorrow, an adult leadership program initiated through the Archway Partnership, has made a huge impact in her life and her journey of starting a Girl Talk chapter.

“The youth leadership program taught me not to be afraid to take charge and actually do something—to take action,” Gainous said.

The Pulaski Tomorrow Youth Leadership Academy began in 2014. Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Jane Dollie Williams was instrumental in creating a program that would focus on developing younger high school students. She saw the importance of getting students into the leadership class early in their high school career, in order for them to have time to implement the things they would learn.

“These students are already leaders when they start, but they are even more so when they are finished with the program,” Williams said.

Other Pulaski Youth Leadership Academy graduates have also launched programs that benefit younger students.

Anjunita Davis, a 2016 graduate of the youth leadership academy, started an anti-bullying program with third graders to provide them with a support group and positive messaging. On May 12, that group and the Pulaski Girl Talk chapter planned to co-host an outreach project at Pulaski County Elementary School, during which they will read to students.

Since its inception, nearly 100 students have participated in the Pulaski Youth Leadership Academy. Last year, Pulaski Tomorrow established the Robert Herman Youth Leadership Scholarship, funded by proceeds from the group’s annual Golf and Gala event.  The scholarship, which provides a minimum of $500 to its recipient was named for Herman because of his commitment to the youth leadership program.  Since 2008, Herman has assisted the Hawkinsville-Pulaski Chamber of Commerce by kicking off each new class of the program with team-building exercises and a charge to the students to become invested in creating a better future for the community. The scholarship is awarded to a senior graduate of the youth leadership academy, who best exemplifies the program’s goals.

The Pulaski Youth Leadership Academy is generously supported by the Pulaski County School System. Additional local sponsors provide the funds for students to be able to participate free of charge. This year’s sponsors are: Central Georgia Technical College, Hollingsworth and Vose, Planters First Bank, ECP, Eldercare, Hawkinsville Rotary Club, Pulaski Tomorrow and Complete Graphic Solutions (in-kind sponsor).

The 2017-18 class will begin in October and is open to Pulaski County residents in grades 10-12. Applications are available at school offices, the 4-H office, and the Chamber of Commerce. For more information, contact Jeff Tarver at (478) 957-0967.