CORAL SPRINGS, FL – Two years ago, Ashley Cerna considered herself a shy and nervous teenager who was often nervous talking to adults.

Today, the 11th grader at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs is a picture of confidence –she’s assertive, motivated, and gets excited about speaking to a group.

She credits her turn-around to a Coral Springs-based program called Project Leadership which is starting up its 37th session on Thursday, the first virtual, over Zoom.

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“What I learned here is something I could never have learned in school,” said Cerna, who is the program’s student president this year.

The free program helps middle school and high school students learn leadership, communication, and conflict-resolution skills, so they can do well in school and college and in careers of their choice.

Students learn by planning mini-conferences where featured speakers teach them about topics such as public speaking, college preparation, job interviewing, and staying focused on important things like school, family and friends.

The key to the program is planning for those meetings. The students organize everything and along the way, they figure out how to work together, solve problems, and get tasks completed as a group.  

Open to students across northwest Broward County, Project Leadership was started in 2003 by lawyer Scott Brook, now mayor of Coral Springs, and chiropractor Dr. Cliff Fruithandler to help students get “real life” skills that aren’t traditionally taught in school or at home.

“We taught our youth about how to deal with adversity, overcome obstacles and learn resilience,” Brook said. The idea is to “help fortify our teens and prepare them for a great future,” he added.

Close to 1,600 students have gone through the program or assisted with it, with some going on to become lawyers, insurance specialists, teachers, and paralegals, Brook said.

Project Leadership is sponsored by Premier Networking Alliance, which is a community networking group.

Julann Sanchez watched her daughter, Nicole, gain confidence and determination through the program, too.

In planning the mini-conferences at a room at Soref JCC in Coral Springs, Nicole Sanchez said she learned to fundraise, plan meetings, and speak her mind in front of others on what the events should focus on.

“This was so much fun. There was no pressure there at all,” said Nicole Sanchez, an eighth-grader at Sawgrass Springs Middle School in Coral Springs. “It was a great escape. I’d go there every day if I could.”

 Julann Sanchez, a teacher at Coral Springs High School, said she was most impressed with the way her daughter set goals and got them done.

“Little by little, you can see the growth,” Julann Sanchez said.

Cerna, the program’s student president, plans to stay with Project Leadership until she graduates high school.

It’s taught her a lot about herself, she said, including that she wants to work directly with people in whatever profession she goes into. That realization, she said, came with time as she learned to work with her peers.

“This was a really safe place for me to learn how to express myself,” she said.

Learn more about Project Leadership at a virtual meeting on Thursday, at 4:30 pm., at a Zoom link here.


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