I still remember the nervous excitement I felt as I pulled in to the parking lot of Blach Construction for my first day of Leadership San Jose. It was much akin to starting at a new school and having to make all new friends. Luckily, I didn’t have to eat the catered TOGO’s alone in a bathroom stall. In fact, I was privileged to meet and spend the next 8 hours with 35 other amazing cohort members with such different temperaments, talents, and convictions. I left that day with both a genuine appreciation of my fellow cohort members and deeper understanding of myself.

But there was little respite for us. Fresh off the heels of intensive team building, we were tasked with choosing a group project that would take the better part of a year, and have a lasting impact on our community.

We were given two choices for our project. Our first pitch was to convert the tennis courts of the Valley Palms Housing Development, giving local youth a space to play sports. The other pitch involved creating two outdoor murals to enhance a portion of the Guadalupe River Walk under Coleman Avenue. This area serves as an outdoor classroom and is the only publicly-accessible portion of the river in the area giving the general public an opportunity to experience the nature habitat near the banks of the river.

While both organizations did a wonderful job of pitching their worthy cause, our cohort ultimately voted to support the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy. We wanted the opportunity to help benefit over 5,000 K-8 students who attend the Conservancy’s field trip programs in the park and river each year. In addition to the families, commuters and other park and trail users that visit the trail pass along Coleman Avenue. Being the overachievers that we were, a contingent of our cohort decided to help support the Valley Palms Housing Development as well.

Once we selected the project, we needed to figure out how best to tackle the goal at hand. In all honesty, this was one of the more difficult parts of the entire experience. Since we were just starting out, we weren’t exactly sure what needed to get done or how to organize ourselves to accomplish it. We started by brainstorming the different groups we felt we might need. Everyone started shouting out ideas and one member of the cohort was tasked with writing the ideas on a whiteboard. It was obvious we needed a fundraising team, but some of the other groups didn’t come to mind so effortlessly. We started grouping similar oriented tasks together to create committees resulting in a Fundraising Committee, Communications Committee and a Construction Committee.

As with most projects, you need funds to get started. To raise money, we held a fundraiser auction at the Capital Club in downtown San Jose. We were able to raise over $20,000 and went a long way toward supporting our project. Our entire cohort was thrilled with the charity auction and grateful for our partnership with the Capital Club. In addition to the fundraiser we also pitched our project to local donors and businesses to raise additional funds. The funds were directed to support the trail signs (also known as wayfinding signs) that lead visitors and students from the new Rotary Park to the river bank. The hope of adding trail signs is to encourage visitors to explore the nature habitat near the river banks.

In the midst of fundraising our cohort also led three cleanups in the park. We covered a lot of ground along the Guadalupe River Park cleaning up trash in the area. With each cleanup, we felt more connected to the project and with one another. We also had a chance to further engage with the business community by partnering with Deloitte. Deloitte has a culture of supporting their community through their annual Impact Day.  Through the network of having a Deloitte employee in our cohort we were able to partner with their employees to help plant trees and other landscape to beautify the area. Additionally, a large portion of our fundraising money went towards hiring an artist and creating the perfect mural design that could be enjoyed by all.

As our attachment to the Conservancy grew stronger, we were excited to see the progress that we were making through fundraising and communicating with external stakeholders. Which led to physical improvements in the park. In the end, we were proud of what we achieved as group. In nine months, we went from being complete strangers to a team that accomplished something that benefits an entire community.

For anyone who is embarking on their own Leadership San Jose journey, I encourage you to remain flexible throughout the entire project. You may start out thinking that you’ll be able to accomplish a task in a particular manner. But as you go along, new challenges may be thrown your way, or there may be new ideas for you to consider. Take a moment, regroup and focus on the broader goal. In the end, you will find your way even if you have to go back to the beginning.

P.S. LSJ Cohort 2018, Best Class Ever.

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