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Illini Prairie CEO Program excited to learn about local businesses

The 2021-22 Illini Prairie CEO program, pictured in front are facilitator Hannah Kremitzki Myers, Adeleigh Ross, Dakota Freese, Kenzie Fornshell, Makenzie Herschberger, and Kelly Toto. Pictured in back are Zack Ozier, Adi Patel, Thomas Brown, Tyson Macaulay, Alex Kuhns, and Brady Urban. Photo: Kendra Hennis

By Kendra Hennis

The last year has shown us more than ever the importance of investing and supporting our local businesses. The Illini Prairie CEO program helps students gain professional experience needed to aid them in the business world to be successful, while allowing them to explore and learn more about local businesses and earn credit for school.

The Illini Prairie CEO Program (formerly Douglas County CEO) was founded in 2017 and seeks to “prepare people, especially youth, to be responsible, enterprising individuals who become entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial thinkers and contribute to economic development and sustainable communities.” It is said that, “the CEO program is much more than a textbook course. Rather, students are immersed in real life learning experiences with the opportunity to take risks, manage the results, and learn from the outcomes.”

The program is calling Tuscola “home” for the first five weeks, where they will learn more about the community and the businesses within it. Students will be touring local businesses, hearing from community leaders, and beginning their class projects during this time. Their first week, the class met with Whitney Heredia at Whitney Heredia Photography to learn more about her business, how she markets to her customers, and the opportunities she has in the area. CEO students also look forward to learning more about TNB Bank, Vintage Karma, Tuscola Stone Company, and many more while in town. Following the five weeks, students will move to Arcola and then Sullivan, allowing them the opportunity to get versed on many community businesses.

This year, the Illini Prairie CEO program is led by facilitators Mac Condill and Hannah Kremitzki Myers, and is comprised of 11 students from Tuscola, Arcola, ALAH, and Sullivan from 7:30 to 9 a.m. through the week. The 2021-22 class consists of Thomas Brown, Tuscola; Kenzie Fornshell, Tuscola; Dakota Freese, Sullivan; Makenzie Herschberger, Tuscola; Alex Kuhns, Arcola; Tyson Macaulay, Tuscola; Zack Ozier, Sullivan; Adi Patel, Tuscola; Adeleigh Ross, Sullivan; Kelly Toto, ALAH; and Brady Urban; Tuscola.

Unlike a traditional class, facilitators are not there to “teach” but instead to bridge the gap between students and the information they need to succeed. Students learn how to set themselves apart in the classroom and workforce; and are encouraged to dress professionally, be punctual, and be accountable. The program was designed for students to get out and get real world experience with businesses, make connections, and start their own businesses. Throughout the year students will be working on an individual business as well as a class business.

The businesses are a large portion of the class. These can be any kind of product or service that can be viable in the community, and are entirely up to the students to complete. Students will use their strengths to work together and learn more about their leadership styles. Last year’s CEO class was very successful with their creation and production of masks. Myers commented that the non-traditional-ness of the class is one of the wonderful things about the program, noting that of course they want students to do well, but in a lot of cases they want them to fail.
Myers said, “we want them to know that this isn’t going to work out because I didn’t follow through with my end.” This allows for students to learn from their mistakes, and correct them as necessary.

Condill, Lead Facilitator of the program, said that he “enjoys giving back to the community that has given so much to me and my family for the last six generations.” He continued, “I am excited to be working with the CEO program as I believe it combines my interests for developing youth for the future, growing businesses for our region, and inspiring creative learning. I also believe the CEO program is making a positive impact on the future of rural communities which will expand the students’ minds as to what is actually offered in their own backyard.”

Myers originally began with the program last year as a mentor. She exclaimed that she was very excited to join the program because (she) “strongly believes that active citizenry is a necessary component for a healthy, functioning community.” Myers stated that she “is so excited as to what the Illini Prairie CEO program can provide to both students and communities. From touring area businesses to meeting with experienced local leaders, the CEO program will leave this program with a better understanding of local economies, forged strong business connections and will have learned important life skills that will no doubt set them apart from their peers. I, for one, am incredibly honored to be a part of such an amazing program and am excited to help guide the next generation of community leaders.”

Myers said that she looks most forward to exploring area communities with students. “I am hoping we have an impact on smaller communities. I think now more than ever we are all learning and re-examining the roles of our local communities and what they do for us, and having students that see that same desire in these small towns. That’s what is great about the CEO board and the communities, because we are all invested. These communities are hopefully encouraging and cultivating the sense of entrepreneurship because they want these kids to come back and help make these communities great, and I think that all starts with this program.”

Illini Prairie CEO students have an exciting year to look forward to. You can follow them on Facebook at Illini Prairie CEO or visit their website for more information.

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