Adventure Backpacks: How leadership and learning benefit community

With the retirement of a longtime spokesperson for the Bank of Missouri branch in Republic, Trish Ghan suddenly became “it.” With a deep aversion to public speaking, she knew she needed help—and fast.

At the same time, Tysha Shay, a library branch manager who was new to the Republic community, was looking to make her mark. She hoped to find a way to implement a project she and her staff had brainstormed: developing nature backpacks, which patrons could check out, with information and activities to encourage families to spend time together outdoors.

In their separate quests, both came across University of Missouri Extension’s Neighborhood Leadership Academy. The in-person community-building program based in St. Louis moved online last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. This created an opportunity to offer NLA statewide. Participants across Missouri came together virtually to develop leadership skills while working in local cohorts on projects that benefit their communities.

One successful outcome of the first statewide NLA was Shay and Ghan’s collaboration on the Adventure Backpack project.

Though both Shay and Ghan had attended local chamber meetings, the two never met until they took the online NLA course.

NLA participants complete a CliftonStrengths assessment. Shay said she took one look at the range of identified strengths among her Ozark cohorts and knew immediately Ghan would be the perfect partner to help bring the Adventure Backpack idea to reality.

In addition to strengths that complemented Shay’s, Ghan had an extensive community network built up over more than two decades at the bank and a lifetime living in Republic. That would help with finding project supporters.

In February 2020, Shay had attended several presentations about nature literacy at the Public Library Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee. “We saw other libraries doing this and they were successful,” Shay said. “So we knew we were on to something with a great idea with lots of resources already out there.”

A library survey confirmed that nature literacy had real appeal to local families in an area with a lot of trails, parks and the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield.

Ghan worked on getting funding for two sets of 10 backpacks on the themes of birdwatching and nature exploration while Shay and her team compiled the content. Backpacks contained an array of developmentally appropriate fiction and nonfiction books, binoculars, activity sheets and even “leave no trace” pledge cards.

The backpacks were a hit. All 20 were quickly checked out with waiting lists, said Kathleen O’Dell, community relations director for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.

Parents helped spread the word on social media, and the youth services librarian connected with local schools, which were planning a summer school theme around nature and camping.

Shay and Ghan credit NLA for helping ensure the project’s success and giving them a broader perspective about their own strengths.

Ghan said the academy also helped them appreciate the challenges other communities face. “It was such a rewarding experience, getting to meet and hear ideas from people all across the state—seeing the kinds of issues that neighborhoods in St. Louis, for instance, had to deal with, some similar to our community and some that were outside anything we ever knew about before,” she said.

Shay agreed: “It was such an important perspective to see how other communities were facing things. It gave me so much insight and so many ideas.”

David Burton, MU Extension county engagement specialist in community economic development in Greene County, said that NLA gives participants foundational training and a safe opportunity to create or advance projects they are passionate about.

Burton, along with MU Extension’s Kyle Whittaker in Webster County and Pam Duitsman in Christian County, served as mentors for NLA’s Ozark cohort.

“Especially in rural communities, we’ll say we need volunteers, we need community leaders, and people sometimes back away saying, ‘I don’t really have leadership experience,’” Burton said. “NLA helps them discover and hone innate skills they never knew they had and make new connections that help them move ahead with that project. I love seeing people who come in sitting on the back row find an openness to trying things for the good of their community.”

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Other cohorts in the first statewide NLA session included participants in St. Louis, mid-Missouri and Meramec. Nearly 60 graduates developed a range of successful projects, said NLA director Claire Rippel, an MU Extension county engagement specialist serving the St. Louis metro area. Among them:

Shavanna Spratt of Ferguson started a podcast, “Da Hood Talks,” featuring important community issues.

Frank Williamson started a Black Restaurant Week to support Black-owned eateries in St. Louis.

Janett Lewis founded the Rustic Roots Sanctuary, an urban farm in Spanish Lake.

Rippel said the virtual component was such a success that the program has continued the format for the current fall session.