GREENFIELD – Two women handed out goodies to the crowd to the bumping beat of a children’s song about backpacks.

Two more danced about with giant cutouts of the faces of Cathy and Jim Matthews, the husband-wife team behind local nonprofit Backpacks of Hope.

Jennifer Frye, Jennifer Stanley, Jennifer McMillan and Debbie Grass — known as Team Backpack (or “Debbie and the Jens,” as they jokingly called themselves) — were charged as members of this year’s Leadership Hancock County class with expanding the program, which provides backpacks filled with necessities to the homeless.

The 2016-17 class of Leadership Hancock County celebrated its graduation Wednesday evening at NineStar Connect with a dinner ceremony. This year’s 25 members, who worked in six teams to tackle various philanthropic and community-improving projects, shared their challenges and triumphs of the eight-month tuition-supported leadership academy at the event.

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Team Backpack helped the Matthews family, the leaders of the organization, come up with fundraising and inventory-tracking plans. To celebrate the successful establishment of the inventory system, they surprised the couple Wednesday night with baskets of hats, cotton swabs and other items the nonprofit organization discovered were in short supply.

Cathy Matthews said the group helped her and her husband better understand their organization’s needs and opportunities for growth in the future.

Leadership Hancock County immerses budding leaders throughout the county in leadership discussions and exercises during its program, all while gaining hands-on experience helping county agencies with various needs. The organization was formed in the 1990s with the mission to inspire residents to foster the traits needed to take on positions of leadership within the community.

This year’s group of students began work on their projects in December after organizers solicited area nonprofits and organizations for project ideas.

The graduation dinner celebrated the accomplishments completed by the teams, but leaders also honored one outstanding graduate with a special award.

During the ceremony, Leadership Hancock County board vice president Donnie Munden presented the 2017 Stacia Alyea Excellence in Leadership Award to Laurene Lonneman of Elanco Animal Health.

Alyea was a member of the first Leadership Hancock County class 21 years ago and was a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department deputy killed in pursuit of a drunk driver, Munden said. The award is given to a class member who exemplifies balanced commitment to work, home and activities and who shows a dedication to improving the lives of others, he said.

Co-coordinator David Hill, whose first year helping lead the organization wrapped up with the graduation, said he looks forward to seeing what the members of the class will do with their knowledge.

The 2016-17 class contained employees of the following businesses or nonprofit organizations: Alternatives Inc., Buck Creek Flooring, CGS Services, the city of Greenfield, Eastern Hancock High School, Elanco, Greenfield Banking Co., Greenfield-Central Community School Corp., Hancock County Community Foundation, Hancock County Public Library, Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, Hancock County Solid Waste Management District, Hancock Regional Hospital, Hoosier Hear Gear, the Jane Pauley Center, Kindred Healthcare and NineStar Connect.

Leadership Hancock County projects

Agency helped: Backpacks of Hope

Team members: Jennifer McMillan, Debbie Grass, Jennifer Frye and Jennifer Stanley

The project: Create an inventory system and a marketing and fundraising strategy for Backpacks of Hope, a county nonprofit that provides backpacks filled with supplies to people who are homeless.

Status: Complete. The group sought donations for an iPad with an application for an inventory system and made a book of fundraising ideas for leaders to use.

Agency helped: Alernatives Inc.

Team members: Rachel Cremeans, Aaron O’Connor, Summer Grinstead, Robert Harris and Rachel Dennis.

The project: Plan a fundraiser for Alternatives Inc., an Anderson-based domestic and sexual violence shelter that also serves Hancock County residents and maintains an office in the Greenfield Police Department.

Status: The 5K Against Violence was held April 8; about 100 participants raised some $3,500.

Agency helped: Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department

Team members: Lisa Thompson, Robert Caird, Susie Coleman and Marie Felver

The project: Recruit volunteers for the department’s Little Free Library Hancock County program; the group will oversee, maintain and stock the small library stations located throughout the county.

Status: Complete

Agencies helped: Hancock County Arts and Cultural Council, Greenfield Main Street

Team members: Laurene Lonnemann, Cindi Holloway, Regina Jackson and Dede Allender

The project: Identify sites and artists for murals in Greenfield. This project focuses on researching the backgrounds of prominent downtown buildings and creating murals reflecting their history.

Status: Ongoing. The group identified seven prospective sites and acquired bids between $3,200 and $15,000 for artists from the area, region and as far as California.

Agency helped: J.B. Stephens Elementary School sensory garden

Team members: Matt Davis, Kate Brown, Kimberly Sombke and Teresa Smith

The project: Map out a sensory garden for the school, creating guidelines other educators can follow.

Status: Complete

Agency helped: The Landing

Team members: Mike Graf, Nicole Mann, Mike Schull and Monica Sexton

The project: Create a website for The Landing Place, a Greenfield clearinghouse for young people who need guidance, substance-abuse intervention and education. The website will feature testimonials and resources for young people who are at risk, said director Linda Ostewig.

Status: The new website is slated to go live May 8 after approval by The Landing Place’s board of directors.

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or