Sun, Dec. 08

Verde Valley Leadership puts focus on youth and education development

Milissa Koel and Michelle Conway from VVL Class XIV with Lisa Page (center) of Rainbow Acres. VVL courtesy photo

Milissa Koel and Michelle Conway from VVL Class XIV with Lisa Page (center) of Rainbow Acres. VVL courtesy photo

Verde Valley Leadership met for its Youth and Education Leadership Development Day coordinated by Michelle Conway with the Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau, Milissa Koel with Rainbow Acres, and Steve Hensyel with the City of Cottonwood.

Rainbow Acres hosted the training in the morning and began with breakfast provided by the chefs at Rainbow Acres. After an overview of the day’s events, the members of the Verde Valley Leadership were led through the exercise of preparing a personal business card, a quick and concise way to effectively introduce oneself.

The theme of the training day focused on the challenges and opportunities youth face in the Verde Valley. To begin this process, a round table discussion was held where members described what they were up against back when they were in high school as well as their response to those challenges.

This discussion provided the backdrop for the YouTube video “Inside Cottonwood January 2019 Education in the Verde Valley” highlighting the current challenges in the Verde Valley hosted by Mayor Tim Elinski with Steve King, superintendent of Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District, and Al Filardo, one of the founders of Verde Valley Leadership. Today’s teens face increasing pressure of poverty and hunger that affects their ability to learn well.

The members were led on a walking tour of the ranch to learn more about Rainbow Acres and its mission to serve adults with special needs, seeing firsthand how innovative Rainbow Academy incorporates learning opportunities for residents known affectionately as “Ranchers.” Members saw Ranchers in action in the barn and met Lisa Page, the animal science educator and Rodolfo Morales Martinez, the horticulture science educator and his amazing greenhouses.

From there Sandra Cheney, parent education coordinator with MATFORCE, gave a presentation on drug addiction in Yavapai County. Staggering statistics were shared about the potency of the drugs that students are exposed to compared to what was out there in the 1960s. For example, the THC content in marijuana was around 4% in the 1990s. With vaping, a popular way to consume THC, the potency is 50% to 80%. Clothing items were displayed that manufacturers use built-in pockets as stash areas. The logos also identify drug users so teens can quickly identify others who use drugs. This is some of what teens are up against in addition to the struggles of poverty and hunger discussed earlier.

Following a lunch at Rainbow Acres and meeting the President/CEO Gary Wagner, VVL members caravanned to Valley Academy for Career and Technology Education (VACTE) in Cottonwood.

Superintendent Bob Weir gave a presentation about VACTE as well as having testimonials provided by some current students. Bob discussed the different training options provided by VACTE and the partnership with Sedona Red Rock High School, Mingus Union High School, and Camp Verde High School.

Even though the student population at Sedona Red Rock High School has declined in recent years, the enrollment for VACTE students has increased due in part to current students doing the recruiting out of their enthusiasm of the training. VACTE is absolutely leading the way to providing valuable career training programs and partnerships with area employers who hire their graduates.

The next venue was the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District office where Superintendent Steve King spoke about how stress affects the brain and therefore learning.

Two three-year-old brains were compared side-by-side, one that had experienced stress and the other stress-free. The differences were dramatic. Today’s students are under much stress, primarily from social media, poverty and hunger. In response to this, COCSD is leading the way to help our students with coping strategies such as the “Focus Zone”, a mindfulness program that works with the brain. This provides students tools to manage stress including strengthening supportive relationships among students and their teachers and resource providers.

The day ended with a wrap up and discussion of “Leading from the Edge” an account of Shackleton’s’ Antarctica expedition. VVL members had an opportunity to truly learn about how members of the community are doing amazing things for our youth to support them in overcoming the challenges they face.

To learn more about Verde Valley Leadership and how to get involved, please visit

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