Our local communities are full of dedicated nonprofits with inspiring missions. TS Prosperity Group wants to celebrate some of these nonprofits by featuring them in our Investing for Good blog series. Next up in the series is Southwest Iowa Leadership Academy, located in Council Bluffs, where Deb Masker serves as director. Read our interview with Deb Masker below and stay tuned for additional inspiration from nonprofits serving our community.
Tell us about your nonprofit and its mission.
The Southwest Iowa Leadership Academy provides leadership training for middle school students in west Pottawattamie County. Students apply to attend during March of their seventh-grade year, go through an application process and if selected from their middle school attend a four-day residential camp in June. Students participate in team building activities, learn about leadership styles, experience communication skill building, problem-solving activities, service learning and goal setting. Guest speakers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) business partners provide their expertise to our students through hands on activities. Students return to their middle schools and serve as the student leaders and ambassadors for their respective middle schools.
The Southwest Iowa Leadership Academy empowers middle school students with leadership skills that will lead them to become active stewards in a diverse society and provide experiences that will challenge them to meet the needs of their ever-changing world.
How and when did your entity get started?
This year marks the 30th year that Southwest Iowa Leadership Academy has served west Pottawattamie County. Originally, it was a cooperative effort between Iowa Western Community College, the Iowa West Foundation and the six cooperating districts. Today it is an ad hoc program at the local schools and requires funding from the community in order to complete its mission. All of our schools support the leadership academy’s mission, but due to budget cuts in school funding they cannot provide direct financial support. This is why it has been increasingly important to gain more community partners in order to spread the message about this impactful mission and program for our local youth!
Where are you at today and what are your future goals?
In order to be able to provide this program for our middle school emerging leaders we need to find sustainable funding to continue this program into the future. Through frugal use of resources, we have kept costs to a minimum and still provide a quality program for our students. We have been able to raise money annually, but we are looking for sustainable funding where donors pledge support for more than one year. Raising money is a full-time endeavor and is a difficult task as our staff members are all full-time educators. Our goal is to try to find 5-10 businesses and/or community groups who are willing to commit to sustainable funding in order to continue to provide this quality program.
Why should someone support your mission?
Our youth is our future! It is our hope people recognize that these young people will be our business owners, teachers and executives in the future, and we need to start building these vital skills now. Secondly, we want our graduates to come back to our area and be positive role models after their post-secondary education. We need to invest in their development now so they can return that investment later. This program builds those leadership skills which we need so desperately in our society today.
What is one way your organization is helping improve the quality of life in our local area?
Our students are encouraged to give back to the community and school through service learning projects. Each school is expected to have their leadership students plan and execute these service learning experiences. Some of our schools plan one service learning project per quarter, some plan one per semester, while one school completes a service learning project each month. Another goal is to encourage the wider school-community to participate in a service learning experience to meet a need in their community.
What do you enjoy about serving in a nonprofit?
Leadership has always been a passion of mine, and as a parent I was humbled to have all of my children attend this program before I became the director. It is challenging when dealing with seven different school schedules, arranging programing and finding ways to make changes to the curriculum to meet the emerging needs of our students. I love working with the students and watching them grow to become leaders in high school and beyond.
How have your life experiences brought you to where you are today?
I believe that being a part of 4-H for eight years prepared me well for different roles that I have had as a leader. My parents were (and are) a driving force in believing in me and encouraging me to try a lot of different experiences over the course of my life. They challenged me to view my participation in groups as an important way to give back to the community. Being a part of different professional development initiatives in the different school districts where I have worked has also prepared me to be the director of the academy.
What do you find is your biggest challenge?
Raising money so that this wonderful program can continue into the future.
What is your motivation? What drives you?
Knowing how vital this program was in the development of leadership qualities and skills in my own children is what motivates me. I want students to have those same experiences as they grow into successful adults.
What’s your secret to success?
Hard work and not letting obstacles block ways to be successful. There is always a way to solve a problem and build consensus in a group.
How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
I know I work way too hard (many people tell me that), but I take time to do things with my family and grandchildren as well as do things that I enjoy like reading and exercising.
What was your biggest life lesson?
I feel that it is not to take myself too seriously. Take a big deep breath when facing difficult challenges and find the positive in everything you chose to participate in.
What advice would you give other people who are interested in entering the nonprofit sector?|
Be prepared for a lot of hard work, keep detailed notes as you work with a variety of groups, tap into the strengths of those around you, and enjoy each success no matter how large or small.
How can people volunteer or get involved with your organization?
They can offer their expertise to serve as business speakers for our program.
Deb Masker has served as the Leadership Academy Director since 2004. She is a teacher, mother, wife and grandmother. She has been involved in education for 42 years. She is a sponsor of the National History Day project at Kirn Middle School. She was named the Council Bluffs teacher of the year in 2010, a Nelson Award winner for Education Excellence and a finalist for Iowa teacher of the year twice. Additionally, she was a 4-H leader for 15 years and 4-H judge. She also serves as an instructional coach at Kirn Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa.