Leadership Danbury Benefits of program last beyond graduation
The details of the Leadership Danbury sessions may fade as the years go by, but the personal connections and feeling of enlightenment about the city are standing the test of time.
That was the sentiment shared by past participants as the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce last week held its inaugural alumni reunion at Ethan Allen Hotel.
“I can still call on any one of them for help and they can call on me,” Darlene Dodson said of her fellow 2011 graduates. “To have these relationships seven years later is amazing.”
Dodson was one of more than 100 people to attend the event, including the 25 graduates of the 2018 class. Dodson, one of several alums from Union Savings Bank, does recall several of the visits her class made during the program.
“I didn’t realize Danbury has all these best-kept secrets,” she said. “It really opened my eyes. I was blown away with the history of the city and the different companies that are here.”
Leadership Danbury is a program of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce designed to help develop potential leaders in the local business community. The objectives include improving understanding of the area’s economic, social and political forces, and to foster a sense of community.
It meets monthly nine times starting in January and includes “field trips” and themes such as media, health care, public education, history, economic development, law enforcement and transportation.
P.J. Prunty, who became president and CEO of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, did the program in 2012. It was one of his missions to organize an alumni event.
“Although I am a native to the area, there were still so many incredible resources throughout greater Danbury that I was unaware of,” he said. “Beyond the educational component, I had the opportunity to meet my classmates who represented a diverse make up of business and industry and the nonprofit sector. I am still close with many of them, both personally and professionally.”
Leadership Danbury started in 1989 and last week’s event included two members of the original class: Michelle James, executive director of the Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut; and Diane Berry of Union Savings Bank.
James was working for the United Way in 1989 when she heard that Leadership Danbury was being formulated. Even though her organization did not have the money to send her, she knew she “had to make a difference in Danbury,” and got a scholarship to attend.
“We needed to do a needs assessment and the only way to do a needs assessment is to learn about the community,” she said. “Leadership Danbury helped me learn where I needed to go to get the information. As a result of that I started two programs. One on teen pregnancy prevention and one on substance abuse, which still exists today in some form.”
James left the Danbury area for four years, but when she came back she “hit the ground running” because of the connections she made at Leadership Danbury, she said.
“Leadership Danbury did make a difference in my life and my motto today is: ‘Live life to the fullest,’” she said.
The program is more than field trips and guest speakers. A major component of Leadership Danbury is the community service projects each class does. This year’s class did two projects — collecting more than 300 backpacks full of supplies for students at one of the city’s poorest elementary schools and creating a youth legacy fund to pay for scholarships, as well as fund programs that students want to do to help the community.
This year’s class also donated more than $1,200 to Family & Children’s Aid. Each member of the class was given $20 during one of the sessions and told they could do whatever they wanted with it. They pooled the money and then contributed more funds to the cause.
“The donation is a prime example of what the program is supposed to do,” Amelia Anderson of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce said in a previous interview.
The Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce offers a similar program called the Leadership Institute, which also includes a heavy emphasis on community service. Brian Griffin, president of the Norwalk chamber, counts it as one of his organization’s best programs.
“It provides area companies and organizations with meaningful professional development and employee engagement in the community,” Griffin said. “It also creates a group of individuals who are prepared to become more involved in their workforce and community.”
In case of emergency
Leadership Danbury draws attendees from a variety of industries, including businesses, governmental agencies and nonprofits of all sizes.
Each class includes representatives from the Danbury police and fire departments. Sgt. Jim Antonelli took the program in 2010 and spoke at last week’s alumni gathering.
“At the time, not a lot of supervisors were interested because they didn’t realize what the program was,” he said. “Now, I’m happy to say, there is a waiting list in our department to get into the program because so many of us spoke highly of it and of the people we met.”
Antonelli is head of the department’s K-9 unit, co-chairman of the community resources division, and part of the community care team, which helps the homeless and people with addictions.
“I learned how to help these people and what resources are available through Leadership Danbury. That’s what networking is all about,” he said. “As a police officer, it’s important to know the ins and outs of the city and how it all relates to the community.”
During a tour of the federal correctional institution in the city, or FCI Danbury, Antonelli discovered that K-9 units from other cities were being employed by the facility. He arranged a meeting with the warden following the tour and now the Danbury K-9 units assist at the prison.
“We’ve been going in with our dogs and using them to try to keep substances and contraband out,” Antonelli said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that that stemmed from the Leadership Danbury program.”
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