Lee Terry, operations director for the Columbia Board of Realtors, said she was “blown away” by the large number of homeless teenagers.
“I was absolutely shocked that that is such an issue in this town,” she said.
Tim Crockett of Crocket Engineering Consultants, a classmate in the Leadership Columbia program, said he was surprised by the large number of parents living below the poverty level.
“I didn’t realize there were so many people in need,” Crockett said during a CBT lunch forum at the Museao building in south Columbia. “I’m not talking about little things — large needs.”
Other participants said the staggering disparity of basic skills among children entering kindergarten and student achievement gaps were eye-opening.
“You would think that this group would know what’s going on,” Erin Parnell, of Bucket Media, said.
After all, the Leadership Columbia class that graduated this month represents a broad cross-section of Columbia.
The 30 graduates included professionals in the banking, insurance, media and medical industries as well as administrators from colleges, nonprofit organizations and local government agencies. Business owners joined a fire department officer and a hotel manager for the 10 educational sessions spread over five months.
The curriculum topics were comprehensive — social services, health care, education, media, government, agriculture, arts and recreation — and culminated with the broader topics of growth and the economy.
The annual program, started 24 years ago by the Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by the MU College of Business, is designed to cultivate and motivate future community leaders. By graduation day, the participants are expected to better understand how the city works, who the leaders are and how citizens and public officials interact.
Program chairs Craig Brumfield of The Callaway Bank and Lindsay Young Lopez of Columbia College led the group and were assisted by three facilitators and session leaders.
“Leadership Columbia has had a wonderful reputation of educating current and up-and-coming leaders about the challenges our community faces,” Lopez said at the beginning of the discussion.
Although Columbia is “phenomenal” and “rich in resources in so many ways,” Lopez said, the program made the participants “much more aware” of the challenges facing the community.
Steve Wiegenstein, an associate dean at Columbia College, said: “We have an absolutely magnificent health care system here, and at the same time, people wait two months to see a doctor. The disparity was very striking.”
Although inadequacies within the health care system are a national issue, Valorie Livingston, the director of Boys & Girls Club of Columbia, pointed out that state Medicare funding cuts are responsible for the long waits to see dentists in the city.
“People who can’t get routine care end up going to emergency rooms,” said Gail Blomenkamp, a division chief in the Boone County Fire District. “It’s a system that is very broken.”
The forum, Lopez said, served as a sort of debriefing session, where graduates could talk about what they learned during the course of the program and what might be done locally about the problems.
Melissa Smith, a business development consultant at Boone Hospital Center, and Cornellia Williams, a coordinator for the Columbia Housing Authority, along with several other participants said the city and county need a central point of entry for social services. A one-stop shop modeled after a system in St. Louis could coordinate with the diverse providers. That, participants said, could increase efficiency and reduce the overlaps, disparities and number of people who can’t navigate the system.
Without a coordinating entity, Blomenkamp said, “people will continue trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to social services; I see it every day. To me, and from what I’ve heard from classmates, it seems like a lot of wasted effort and a lot of wasted money.”
That conversation, Lopez said, is an example of what is now facing the graduates.
The program’s final state goal is for graduates to “be prepared to serve the community and know the service opportunities available,” and Lopez said the question they need to ponder now is: Now that you are informed, aware of the needs of the community and have been given this responsibility, are you prepared to be agents of change?
Garrit Hane, a benefits consultant for Bukaty Companies, expressed one example of the difficulty: choosing priorities when allocating public money and other resources.
Should the city, he asked, focus more on improving social services, which would affect a large number of people, or improve the airport, which would be expensive and used by relatively small percentage of local residents but would also improve the chances of landing a large employer like IBM?
“Do we try to hit that home to get that big business that helps the community overall through more tax revenue?” Hane asked. “Or is that putting all our eggs in one basket that affects only a small percentage of the population?”
Nelly Roach, owner of Caledon Virtual, said her vote is for the first choice. “The children in our community need us,” she said. “If we do it right, it can affect the whole community. We need to go back to the grassroots to find the best way to, as community, raise our children.”
Laura Baker: Benefits Administrator, Boone Electric Cooperative
Cornellia Williams: Family Coordinator, Instructor, Columbia Housing Authority
Roger Still: Community Foundation of Central Missouri
Gerrit Hane: Employee Benefits Consultant, Bukaty Co’s.
Ryan Lidolph: Assistant Vice President, Commercial Loan Officer, Landmark Bank
Emily Stoutenborough: Woodruff Sweitzer
John Pfenenger: Prism Capital Management
Dale Wright: MU College of Business