When I moved back to Lexington in 1998 after 22 years of living elsewhere, I realized how much had changed — and how much I never knew about the city where I was born and raised.
So I applied to become a member of the Leadership Lexington class of 2000. The program, sponsored by Commerce Lexington, is marking its 30th year and has begun taking applications for the 2009 class.
I learned a lot in Leadership Lexington, and I'm not the only one.
"It was an eye-opening experience," said Kevin Stinnett, another Lexington native who left town only long enough to attend Centre College in Danville.
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Stinnett was in Leadership Lexington the year after I was, and it helped inspire him to run for the Urban County Council. He's now in his third term representing the 6th District.
"It has been one of the most valuable things I've done in terms of networking and building lasting friendships," Stinnett said. "It helps individuals to get out of their comfort zones and appreciate all of the things going on in our community."
Mahendran Naidu, a member of Leadership Lexington's 2002 class, had a similar experience. Unlike us local boys, though, Naidu was born and raised in India.
The software engineer lived in a half-dozen major cities around the world — from Chicago and San Francisco to Taipei and Singapore — before conducting a search for the perfect American "small town" in which to settle down and raise a family. That search led him and his wife to Lexington in 1998.
"Leadership Lexington was awesome," said Naidu, who owns Techdomain Inc., a technology-services company. He was inspired by his Leadership Lexington experience to start Educare, a non-profit organization that helps the Fayette County Public Schools teach students life skills.
More than 1,000 people have gone through Leadership Lexington in the past three decades, including many public officials and top executives in local companies, non-profit organizations and law firms.
Here's the way Leadership Lexington works: A steering committee of 20 graduates reviews applications and selects a class of about 40 people. (I'm in my second term on the steering committee.)
After an orientation retreat in August, the class meets one day each month for the next nine months. Each day focuses on a different aspect of Lexington: media; growth and preservation; government; education; diversity; health and human services; public safety; arts and quality of life; and economics and workforce development.
On each of those days, the class travels to various locations around town and meets with leaders in that field. Then, on graduation day in June, class members discuss leadership development and how they plan to put their experience to use in the community.
"You have very good speakers who educate you about what's going on and about the problems of the community and what needs to be done," Naidu said.
Since 2002, each Leadership Lexington class has organized and executed a community service project. One of those was to create the Leadership Lexington Youth Program, which provides a similar experience for local high school students.
Another service project was to help the East End neighborhood launch the effort to build the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden to memorialize the famous African American jockey and help revitalize the neighborhood. That project has since been taken up by the Bluegrass Community Foundation's Legacy Center.
"It's almost like a mini-MBA program," Naidu said of Leadership Lexington. "Every year, I forward the applications to my friends and strongly urge them to apply."
For more information, go to www.leadershiplexington.com, or call Linda Stampf, Commerce Lexington's vice president for leadership development, at (859) 226-1610.
Isaac Murphy event
Speaking of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, there will be a community event at the location, Third Street at Midland Avenue, Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to raise public awareness of the project.
Chris McCarron, the famous jockey and founder of Lexington's North American Racing Academy, will be at the free, family-oriented event, which will include food, music and children's activities.