For young people who participate in the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan (CFNEM) Youth Advisory Council (YAC) program, the experience is likely to leave a positive mark in their lives. For Kara Gehrke of Alpena, that experience has come full-circle as she went from being a YAC member while attending Thunder Bay Junior High and Alpena High School, to one of CFNEM’s Youth Trustees, to the Foundation’s newest YAC advisor. She is now helping to lead the program for the next generation.
“YAC was such a good experience for me. I really believe in the mission and the goal of YAC. I love seeing how it has grown and evolved since I was a member,” says Gehrke. “It's cool seeing the YAC group doing more in the community to bring awareness and volunteering with the projects they fund. It really gives them a hands-on experience.”
Gehrke (left) is a 2015 graduate of Alpena High School. As a member of the Northeast Michigan YAC, she also served on the CFNEM Board of Trustees from 2013-2015 as a Youth Trustee with full voting rights. She says being part of YAC helped her to see how the grant process works, learn to collaborate, and to work well with her peers.
“I developed skills in teamwork, respecting others’ opinions, collaboration, and how to stand up for your views,” she says. “Ultimately it helped me be a better leader in my community.”
Gehrke attended college at Concordia University where she studied education and played softball as a pitcher for four years. After teaching in Ypsilanti for one year and living downstate for five, she knew she wanted to be back up north. She now teaches at Alpena Public Schools.
“As a teacher you are constantly in a position to help make a positive impact in the community,” says Gehrke. “I am happy I was able to do that as a member of YAC and now continue it in my career. I feel that I need to give back to the community that gave so much to me.”
Gehrke is taking over the role of advisor for students at Thunder Bay Junior High from Tricia Udell. Tom Stoppa has served as the YAC advisor for Alpena High School members for over 20 years.
“Having been the advisor during her time on YAC, Tom and Kara have gone from a mentor/student role to partnering in YAC as teammates,” says CFNEM Program Officer Kara Bauer LeMonds. “Clearly, the YAC program makes an impact on the lives of its members, especially when they dive as deep into the program as Kara did during her time in the program. It is great to see the experience come around full-circle the way it has.”
Gehrke says her goal is for the YAC members to gain an understanding of the fact that they can have a positive influence in their community and help give to causes they feel will positively impact those around them.
“I want them to feel confident, and that they have a voice,” she says. “They will gain skills in leadership and learn to respect everyone’s opinion.”
CFNEM’s YAC is currently in the middle of its fall grant review, as well as beginning its tri-annual youth needs assessment, which will help guide their grantmaking for the next three years. The winter grant deadline for Youth Advisory Council grants is January 15, 2022.