Created in 2015 as a partnership between the Middle Georgia Regional Commission and the University of Georgia J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, the Middle Georgia Regional Leadership Champions program has set out to build a network of people with the leadership skills and understanding to work across geographic boundaries to build a stronger middle Georgia.
As a participant in the 2020 Middle Georgia Regional Leadership Champions program, Jonathan Pitts and his classmates learned how poverty affected the 11 counties around Macon that make up the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.
“Several of us felt like we had an opportunity to do something on a regional level to try and tackle this issue,” said Pitts, a Jones County resident who chairs the JACOR Foundation, which is focused on increasing financial literacy education and awareness. “We decided to start a financial literacy program for youth.”
In the 2021-22 school year, Pitts and others worked with the Jones County School System to introduce a financial literacy seminar series, reaching 45 students with information on topics such as banking, real estate, insurance, accounting and financial planning.
“The class proved very beneficial,” said Laura Rackley, executive director of human resources for the Jones County School System. “It makes an impact when students can hear directly from people actually in the field of finance, and those representatives can help our students learn good financial habits early. We even had a couple of students that considered pursuing different careers after hearing the information.”
Attending the UGA leadership program played a key role in bringing this to fruition, Pitts said.
“The Middle Georgia Regional Leadership Champions program gave me a chance to connect and collaborate with others around the region with a common interest in enhancing our communities, as well as develop my leadership skills,” Pitts said. “It is an amazing program and a win-win for the region to work in partnership with UGA.”
“Especially with such a large employer like Warner Robins Air Force Base, we find that what happens in one community affects neighboring counties and vice versa,” said Laura Mathis, executive director for the Middle Georgia Regional Commission. “Looking at that, we wanted to invest in leadership development that prioritized collaboration across county boundaries to help neighboring communities benefit from one another, rather than trying to do everything alone.”
The UGA program combines discussion on regional issues such as housing, health care and poverty with leadership skills development.
“In designing this curriculum, we focus on skills particularly applicable in the context of regionalism, such as adaptive leadership, collaboration, and how to lead through change,” said Brittany Adams-Pope, UGA Fanning Institute public service faculty member.
Since its creation, more than 130 individuals representing all 11 counties in the Middle Georgia Regional Commission have completed the program, and 100 percent of participants said the program prepared them to make the region better.
Completing its sixth class this past fall, the UGA-designed leadership program is garnering national attention.
The National Association of Development Organizations recognized the Champions program with the 2022 Aliceann Wohlbruck Impact Award. This award recognizes projects that have advanced regional economic development and improved quality of life and made significant impacts on their regions.
“We are very proud of the partnership with the UGA Fanning Institute and the way in which this program has impacted individuals and the region as a whole,” Mathis said. “Collaborations such as this help generate progress on a regional level, and the program fosters those while increasing regional awareness and understanding.”
Jones County has expanded the financial literacy program into its 12th-grade economics course, reaching all seniors, Rackley said.
After the financial literacy program’s first year, which also included a financial literacy essay contest and reaching out to parents about the importance of starting college savings accounts for their children, Pitts aims to continue to grow the program.
“I am hoping that I can show others what has happened in Jones County and give them a template that they can use in their respective counties,” he said.
For more information on the UGA Fanning Institute’s regional leadership programming, click here.