CUNA Mutual grant generates additional momentum for Leader in Me program

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WATERLOO – A $200,000 grant from the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation will help a nonprofit continue to grow a program that’s been a mainstay in Cedar Valley schools for a decade.

The program is fostered by Leader Valley, a nonprofit founded through a workforce development initiative of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber, now Grow Cedar Valley.

It is known for creating a culture that helps turn thousands of grade school children into successful students and strong leaders, both in school and in their future careers.

“It’s not just another thing that we want our teachers to do,” said Nicole Hackman, Leader Valley director of fundraising and communications. “I’ve heard teachers describe it as, ‘it’s the way we function as a school.’”

Hackman said the grant is the largest CUNA Mutual has awarded to Leader Valley.

“Unlike some school-based leadership programs, Leader in Me serves all students, and with the foundation’s investment, will provide the appropriate training and support to onboard and implement Leader in Me in all Cedar Valley schools, with a special focus given to the schools with the highest number of underserved students,” said Alex Shade, director of corporate social responsibility at CUNA Mutual Group, in a news release.

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Kittrell Elementary School librarian Sharon Stiles and Leader in Me students prepare for guinea pig races on June 7, 2019.

The additional funds will help the 23 schools already hosting the program, and bring three additional Waterloo “at-risk” schools into the fold: Lincoln Elementary School, George Washington Carver Academy and Highland Elementary School.

In addition, the funding will help “refocus” some resources, which may have been lost due to COVID-19, for school staffs to continue the program’s implementation.

Out of the three at-risk schools, Lincoln Elementary, is the furthest along in the process. Staff is attending the necessary workshops and training, and students could begin participating in the program as soon as the second half of 2022.

Once the program takes shape in the 26 schools, more than 12,000 students will benefit, according to Hackman.

In addition to developing career learning opportunities and building equity in education, the ultimate goal for Leader Valley, according to Hackman, is to see the Leader in Me program in all 34 Cedar Valley metro schools.

“We are in a couple of high schools right now, and the goal is definitely to reach those students, so that they have it all the way from elementary through high school,” she said. “By the time they graduate, this would be second nature to them.”

The program is modeled after Stephen R. Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.“ Hackman said some of the immediate benefits for students are better grades, behavior and attendance.

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She noted Leader Valley is “getting really close now” to an important milestone. For the first wave of students who entered the program a decade ago, Leader Valley will soon have graduation rates to analyze and other metrics relevant to what these kids are doing upon leaving school and entering the workforce.

Asked about the program’s impact, Hackman reflected on a tour of the Expo Alternative High School given by one of its students, Dontavies Perez.

“He gave me the tour and talked about what Leader Valley has meant to him,” she said. “For him to recognize that the adults in his life are investing in him and for him to tell me that he now believes in himself and how fortunate he feels to have those leadership experiences, it was amazing to see.”

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