Inside the Leadership Brunswick County Program

by Aug 16, 2018Education, North Brunswick

As the deadline nears for the 2018-19 Leadership Brunswick County course, a graduate shares her insider’s perspective of the nine-month program. 

Every fall I head out and buy my children new #2 pencils and uncracked three-ring binders. I kiss the top of their heads and point them in the direction of their new classrooms, imploring them with excitement to “work hard, learn a lot.” It is with anticipation of their minds expanding that I usher them along campus.

But last fall, the tables turned. In 2017, right around the time school started, I found myself in a classroom. Flanked by eight other Brunswick County professionals, I sat at a desk facing a whiteboard, with a three-ring binder in front of me. We were the Leadership Brunswick County class of 2017–18.

We weren’t the first class, nor will we be the last. The program started in 1996, and a new class is forming right now, preparing for their fall return to “school.” But it was with pride that I graduated alongside my classmates as part of this prestigious program.

Leadership Brunswick County Class

The 2017-2018 Leadership Brunswick County graduates are (L to R): Brandy Barger of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center; Sarah Stephens of Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation; Dave Berkheimer of Healthy Green Solutions, LLC; Tom Kukla of Credere Leadership; Allison Barrett Carter of Carolina Marketing Company; Eric P. Grevin of Law Office of Eric P. Grevin; and Michael Kapushinsky of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. Not pictured: Catherine Michelle Sumrall of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center and Christine R. Gonzalez of the Town of Leland.

Leadership Brunswick County isn’t your typical school assignment. Our employers (for those that weren’t entrepreneurs) supported us as we attended nine months of sessions and finished with a presentation of a group project we that worked on the duration of the course. Commitment was required, but the learning unparalleled.

Our class was given perspectives on all areas of Brunswick County. Each month we looked in depth at a different topic affecting the county (e.g., history, education, law enforcement, economy, tourism). Our learning was hands-on and impactful. We didn’t read books. Instead, the people directly affecting their areas, the real policymakers of Brunswick County, visited us and spoke candidly about their experiences.

We went to the jail to meet with District Attorney Jon David. We were led around Belville’s Riverwalk Park by the influential Joe Breault. We saw the revolutionary Small Business Center Incubator and had intimate conversations with the new director of economic development, Bill Early. We walked on top of the water treatment plant, holding our noses and wearing rubber gloves, guided by longtime employees of H2GO. We sat in a conference room of Novant while the heads of healthcare agencies such as Brunswick Family Assistance and Lower Cape Fear Hospice and LifeCare Center answered all of our questions. Each month the list of executives, changemakers and top-level Brunswick County professionals who came to give energy and expertise to our small group became more impressive.

“I learned something new in every session,” says class graduate Christine Gonzalez, who works for the Town of Leland. “It was exciting to hear about the recent Wilmington Port cranes coming to town about three weeks before it was in the news, when a port employee spoke to our class on Economic Development day. It was great to have access to the Brunswick County movers and shakers. We got to speak with Dr. Susanne Adams, then president of Brunswick Community College; Judge Fred Gore, a native of Supply; County Manager Ann Hardy; and Representative Frank Iler, to name a few.”

Velva Jenkins, currently Vice President of Continuing Education, Economic & Workforce Development at Brunswick Community College (BCC), shared that this was the reason she encouraged the local chambers of commerce to start the program 12 years ago.

Leadership Brunswick County Class

“I shared this idea with the chambers because of the influx of newcomers and the interest I was seeing about the area,” she says. “At that time I was the Small Business and Industry Director at BCC and I was hearing so many questions about the county. If my memory serves me well, I saw a successful program in Davidson County and I thought that program structure would be a good way to address the interest.”

The program, still supported by all three chambers of commerce (North Brunswick Chamber, Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber and the Brunswick County Chamber) as well as Brunswick Community College, isn’t just about looking back to where we’ve been. It’s also about how we move forward as a community with our unique challenges.

“As the county grows there are many decisions to be made about a number of issues and needs,” says Karen Spahr, executive vice president of Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce. “The best decisions come from the ability to listen, learn and work with others. Leadership Brunswick County offers existing and future leaders a solid base of knowledge about the county and some training as it pertains to working for others. Our goal is for the participants to use what they have learned to tackle current and future challenges in Brunswick County.”

Two of the main concerns we heard in class from nearly every presenter were how overwhelming the sheer geographic breadth of the county is (how does the county promote unity and provide services across such a large space?) and about the large economic gap between the booming tourist areas on the coasts and the extreme poverty inland. Given the small size of the class, though, we were able to have many honest and free-flowing conversations with our class guests regarding these two significant challenges.

Further, as a student, I was tasked with walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Our class was divided into two groups for the duration of the course, and each group was asked to do one project together, working through the months and presenting the final project at the end of our “school year.”

The project was to be relevant. We were to identify a real need in the county and come up with a way to address it. My group worked with dozens of organizations and all the schools in the county to identify volunteer opportunities for education. With significant support from Brunswick County Schools, we were able to launch a new “Use Your Tools for Schools” initiative, which is online today (

My colleagues in the second group worked with Community Boys & Girls Club. As a nonprofit that operates several clubs around the region (one in Oak Island), most of their money is needed for programming. Yet the Leadership Brunswick County students had identified an alarming lack of affordable, post-school childcare options. Hearing of the club’s free after-school program, they wanted to increase awareness of the club’s work so those in the county with the need could use the service. The group created effective marketing materials in a variety of formats the club could use.Leadership Brunswick County Class

Outside of class time and projects, we were also required to attend a certain number of chamber events. This was to show us how to access available resources and to get out in the community even more.

The time required from us as students was surprisingly intense. As my classmate Gonzalez shared, “Finding time to work on a group project was difficult. With class participants living from one end of the county to the next, having any meetings or planning sessions outside of the usual monthly class was difficult to schedule. The same could be said for the extra-curricular events; however, it was good to attend a tri-chamber meeting and some ribbon cuttings, things I would not normally make time to attend.”

I was eventually glad I pushed myself and pursued this course. I not only work in Brunswick County for a locally owned business (Carolina Marketing Company, which publishes this magazine) but I also live with my young family in Leland. The future of this county matters to me in a personal way on nearly all levels. At graduation, I felt as though I had learned so much more about my home, how to help it, the people who were shaping it and the friends I can now rely on to make Brunswick County a place where all can thrive.

As Jenkins adds, “The program is needed because the growth of the county continues. A native of Brunswick County, I am so proud to share our rich heritage that makes this county so great! It goes beyond the beautiful beaches; it is the people, the history of this county, the kindness that the people share with one another and most important being rural!“

My project mate Tom Kukla, who runs his own business, told me, “I would recommend the program. For me it helped me get a different perspective on leadership. I spent 30 plus years in corporate leadership and I was looking for a different perspective of community, educational, political, law enforcement and environmental leadership. The skills are the same, but the application and process is vastly different.”

Gonzalez, who works in Leland, says she really enjoyed exploring the southern part of the county. “I enjoyed spending time in Supply and visiting the museum in Southport and the grounds at Fort Anderson. I just wish they could have worked in a day at Bald Head Island!”

Ultimately, I was glad I went back to school last fall. And I hope that others invested in the future of Brunswick County will find their way to the Leadership Brunswick County classroom this fall as well.

Want to learn more about Brunswick County?

Applications to participate in the 2018–19 Leadership Brunswick County program are due at the end of August 2018. To request an application or get more information, contact Brunswick Community College at (910) 755-7383; Brunswick County Chamber at (910) 754-6644; North Brunswick Chamber at (910) 383-0553; or Southport Oak Island Area Chamber at (910) 457-6964.


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