HANCOCK COUNTY — A public book exchange program, a dog park for residents and their pups, artwork for the Pennsy Trail — all the work of Leadership Hancock County grads.

Across the community are signs of what can happen when people come together and learn to lead through community service. This year, Leadership Hancock County, a nonprofit that inspires residents to put their heads together to tackle community issues while learning about leadership, celebrates its 20th anniversary.

When Leadership Hancock County was formed in the 1990s, its vision was straightforward: inspire residents to cultivate the skills needed to take on positions of power.

The idea sprouted when Tom Seng, then CEO of Central Indiana Power, and Nancy King, an educator with the 4-H extension office, started noticing the same faces volunteering to join local boards and steering committees — not always a recipe for fresh thinking, they noted.

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The duo, along with a group of like-minded community members, knew there was more potential for the area; some residents just needed a nudge to recognize their ability — and Leadership Hancock County was born.

More than 200 residents have graduated from the program, which takes participants through a nine-month curriculum that covers all aspects of local life, teaching them about county history, government and private business.

Participants — now about 20 each year — range from young professionals eager to break into the ranks of their workplaces to retirees looking to branch out and explore community clubs and organizations.

While some are innately wired to lead and naturally fall into leadership positions, others possess the skills needed to take on positions of power but need a push to take on greater responsibilities, said Seng, now retired.

“A lot of people have to take a look at their personality and their traits to figure out how you can put those skills to use,” Seng said.

When participants start the program in September, one of the first activities is to take a personality test that correlates to leadership styles, said Donieta Ross, coordinator of the program.

Participants are divided into groups and assigned a large project designed to address a need in Hancock County.

Local nonprofits submit project ideas to the organization, and a 15-member board of directors assigns projects to participants based on group members’ strengths.

Groups meet monthly to work on projects and participate in activities designed to make them more familiar with the area, including everything from visits to large manufacturing facilities to trips to local farms that have been mainstays in the community for decades.

In 1995, when Bobby Keen, then CEO of Hancock Regional Hospital, decided to join the organization’s steering committee, he foresaw a period of significant growth, both in population and industry, and knew the county would need good leaders to navigate the expansion.

Since the first round of graduates completed the program in 1996, Hancock County’s population has gained more than 20,000 residents, now up to roughly 70,000, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I realized we were going to see a lot of changes and knew we needed to do something to develop some strong leaders to guide us through it all,” said Keen, now retired.

As for the impact the organization has made on its participants, Keen points to the program’s long list of graduates, which includes government officials, nonprofit directors and high-ranking law enforcement officers.

Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Campbell, a graduate of the 2011 class, said he joined the program to see a side of the community that his law enforcement duties didn’t always offer.

By getting into government offices and meeting with stakeholders from community organizations, Campbell gained some insight into the processes that help contribute to a community’s success, he said.

Beau Michaud, one of the participants in this year’s class, said the program has taught him how to effectively collaborate with a team.

In working on his group project — a plan for a major fundraising event for Leaders in Navigating Knowledge (LINK), a local education nonprofit — Michaud has gained a deeper understanding of what it takes to lead a successful proposal.

“We’ve learned how to use all the different strengths we bring from our different professions,” said Michaud, community engagement coordinator for the local United Way of Central Indiana office. “ … I think that’s something that’ll stick with me.”

To commemorate the program’s 20th anniversary, organizers are putting together a celebration event at Tyner Pond Farm on June 7, which will feature dinner and a presentation by past graduates. The event is free and open to the public.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.