Last Wednesday, over 200 people from all over the county gathered at the Bartow Civic Center to celebrate the newest 5 Polk Emerging Leaders. This was the fourth year the awards have occurred, but the first year they have been a collaborative event between the 3 established young professional groups in Polk County – Emerge Lakeland, Engage Bartow and the Winter Haven Young Professionals Group.
Learn more about the winners below:
Craig Clevenger – Winter Haven High School
The opening line of this Craig’s first nomination read, “Craig lives and embodies the theory that we are here to help those in need and he takes it upon himself to be a responsible and important part of that care giving.” Another nomination described him as a “wonderful role model” and yet another described him as an “outstanding civic leader who consistently leads by example to our youth.” The nominator continues that, “Craig has invested all of his human capital back into the community and the extensive “extra-curricular” community involvement exceeds all expectation and deserves recognition. “
Craig is a graduate of Lake Region High School Class of 2001 and graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science with an emphasis on Public Administration from Florida State University. After graduating from college and working as a bookkeeper and credit manager, he decided to change careers and use their passion for public service to give back to the community. That is when he became a teacher. In 2009, he joined the staff at Winter Haven High School. His principal, Gina Williams, states that he has taken on so many more responsibilities at the school than just teaching. He took over the leadership of their dying Key Club and through the lessons instilled within him through his active involvement in Kiwanis, he tripled the Key Club’s enrollment. He also began a Leadership Class at the high school in which he brings in community leaders as guest speakers to help his students learn more about how the local government and community work. He also encourages them to attend a local city commission meeting during the year.
Craig full understands that schools can’t do it alone. One nominator describe it, “He understands that schools cannot be successful without help from community and business partners, and he has fostered this type of relationship more than most other educators.”
A prime example was his effort to breathe new life into the Winter Haven High School homecoming parade by taking it from an around-the-block trip to a venture into downtown Winter Haven, fundraising within the business community and increasing alumni participation while driving business into the downtown core.
When asked to describe his greatest professional achievement, Craig references an anonymous note that was left on this desk.
“I want to say thank you for this school year. I came in this school year with the mindset of dropping out. But, once I got in this class, my mind changed. When I walk the field at graduation, give yourself a pat on the back ‘cause you did a good job. Thanks, man.”
In addition to the leadership roles he has taken at Winter Haven High School this award recipient is an active member of the Kiwanis Club of Winter Haven most recently serving as Vice President of the Club and coordinating the annual “Serving the Children” charity golf tournament for the last three years – raising nearly $25,000 for programs supporting youth in East Polk County.
Stephanie Colon – Community Southern Bank
Stephanie’s nomination letters were filled with verbs such as “guides”, “directs” “coaches” and “mentors.” Another nominator went on to say that she “inspires those around them to reach for the stars and never let circumstances get in the way of their goals.” Yet another nominator described her as the great “connector” – always able put the right people together to get problems solved.
Stephanie is a graduate of Fort Meade High School and attended Polk State College. Due to life’s circumstances she was not able to complete a college degree, but after reading the rest of this summary you would have never have guessed. She explains in her application that having to matriculate through the quote “School of Life,” that is to say, not having many of the same opportunities afforded to her peers, having to work her way through high school and having to raise her younger sibling on her own; all made her the stronger and more determined woman she is today.
Professionally, Stephanie has excelled. She began her career as a bank teller and customer service rep. Over 17 years of banking experience later and she is one of the top Business Bankers for Community Southern Bank. She credits her professional success to Community Southern for not just supporting her community involvement but encouraging and empowering her to make a difference in the community.
To read through Stepahnie’s list of leadership roles is to read through a directory of community organizations and non-profits in Polk County. As one nominator stated, this person plunges herself into everything she does and there is too much of that to keep track of. But she does it all with enthusiasm and passion.” She has served as either board or committee members of Emerge Lakeland, March of Dimes, Business Network International, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Central Florida, Girls Inc. of Lakeland, and Lakeland Rotary, to name just a few. Just this past year, she also served as an Honor Flight Guardian which involves taking a World War II veteran to visit the Memorial in Washington, D.C.
But of all her volunteer efforts she cites two accomplishments of which she is most proud. In 2012, Girls Inc. of Lakeland honored her with the “She Knows Where She’s Going Award.” This award is given annually to woman who have contributed to their community and workplace in a way that serves as a perfect role model for young women.
Stephanie is also an avid kickball player. She took this love of the game to a new level when she created a kickball tournament to raise funds for the H.E.R.O Revolution which is a non-profit whose mission is to create anti-bullying awareness in our youth. The tournament raised $3,000 in the first year!
After listening to her involvement it is no surprise why she is being honored.
Ashley Link – Southern Homes of Polk County
Ashley’s nominator wrote that she leads with grace and humility. A Lakeland native, the nominator notes that this next winner has a long family tradition of giving back to the community and she is no exception.
After graduating from Lakeland High School she followed another family tradition and attended the University of Alabama, graduating with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in communication studies. What she found fascinating throughout her studies was the power of grassroots movements. Ashley cites one of her greatest professional accomplishments as being one of her first experiences out of college. She moved from Alabama to Wyoming to work as the communications manager for the Wyoming Tobacco-Use Prevention Coalition. At this time in 2002, there was a movement on the rise to increase the excise tax on tobacco products. Wyoming had one of the lowest in the country and studies had proven that if you make the product more expensive you have a higher chance of impacting the number of users. On top of that, the Marlboro Man was everywhere you looked in Wyoming. Tobacco was a part of their daily lives. It was an uphill battle to say the least but after a year of what one newspaper described as, “organized, grassroots, drum –thumping” the tax was signed into law. This winner states that watching the power of this movement set the tone for the rest of her career.
Connecting groups of people together to do good extended far beyond her work-life. When she moved back to Polk County in 2007 she immediately dove back into volunteerism serving as a student mentor at Blake Elementary School, serving on the marketing committee of Emerge Lakeland, and on the steering committee of Lakeland Vision. She also served on the Polk Theatre Board of Trustees as Vice Chair and Secretary.
Her faith is a strong source of her passion to give back. As an Elder at the First Presbyterian Church, she has taken on numerous leadership roles including Worship Council Chair, School Supply Drive Chair for 3 years, Mission Council co-chair and the list goes on.
Many of you who know this person, also know that she is a tireless leader of the Junior League of Greater Lakeland. Through her involvement in this program she has worked her way to being the President for this next fiscal year. Her mission leading up to this year has been to ensure the woman in this program are fully aware of the impacts their organization has on the community. Many of the jewels of community’s family activities are because of the work of the woman in the Junior League including the Lakeland Christmas Parade, Pig Fest BBQ Competition as well as benefactors of their work including Explorations V, the Learning Resource Center and the Polk Museum of Art. This winner created a program that requires the woman in the league to visit and fully understand these organizations in order create a succession of informed organization leadership.
William Link - Reed & Mawhinney, P.L.
Will was described by his nominator as always giving 110% to anything he commits to. And that is no easy feat with his resume.
He is a graduate of the University of South Florida with a double major in Economics and Political Science and graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. After college, Will relocated to Lakeland where he has been practicing law for the last 10 years. Among his professional achievements, he cites being entrusted to develop a new practice area for his firm, Reed & Mawhinney, P.L. as one of his greatest accomplishments. He developed a NFA Gun Trust practice area which developed a new trust that in addition to the basic ownership and transfer provisions commonly found in trusts, it encourages trustees to provide firearm education and training for the trust beneficiaries and provides other safeguards. This is now used by both his clients and local firearms dealers.
Despite having a wife, child and a very demanding quote “paying job”, he still finds the time to roll up his sleeves and be actively involved with many other community organizations. One of the organizations he volunteers his time towards is Explorations V Children’s Museum. He has served as the secretary, vice president and president of the board of directors and has donated pro-bono work navigating the museum through a mortgage refinance, lease negotiations and other legal matters. He also chaired their Golf Tournament Fundraiser in 2009 and 2011. Georgeann Carlton, Director of the Museum, explains that when it comes to the 80/20 rule of most boards (i.e. 20% of people do 80% of the work) Will is always on the 20% side.
In addition to his involvement in the Children’s museum, Will has been a member of Emerge Lakeland for the last 9 years, serving in every capacity from events committee, to membership, to mentoring to currently serving as Chair. He has served as a student mentor for Girls Inc. as well as played, coached and served as a board member for the Lakeland Roller Hockey League. He is also a graduate of Leadership Lakeland Class 31.
And as if that wasn’t enough to do, Will is also an entrepreneur and small business owner. He is the founder, owner and designer of Trinitee Apparel, a Catholic-based apparel company that stemmed from his desire to have a creative outlet as well as a method of spreading the gospel through somewhat unconventional avenues. He launched the company through the help of a Kickstarter online campaign and raised 365% of his goal to launch the business. He routinely adopts local non-profits for two weeks at a time and donates 20% of the proceeds to the sale of the shirts to that group.
And finally, Will adds columnist to his list, writing columns in the Lakeland Chamber magazine as well as most recently in The Ledger to highlight the many opportunities young professionals in Lakeland have to grow and develop – certainly in line with the spirit of these awards.
Chuck Thornton – Citizens Bank & Trust
Chuck was described by his nominator as the first person that came to everyone’s mind when they thought about nominating someone for this award. They described him as someone who when he sees a void, he doesn’t wait for someone else to fill it, but rather jumps in feet first to meet the workplace or community need.
Born and raised in Frostproof, this award recipient has dedicated his life to helping to improve the community he loves so dearly. He received his bachelor’s degree in Finance from Webber International University in 2005 and is currently enrolled in the University of Florida School of Banking. He has been honored to take the financial skills and knowledge back to his hometown’s Wall Street, literally, where he serves as Branch Manager for the Frostproof branch of Citizens Bank & Trust located on E Wall St. Of his professional achievements, he cites exceeding budget expectations of loan and deposit growth, even during the tougher years of the economy.
His hard work extends far beyond the walls of his branch. He serves as the treasurer of the Frostproof Chamber of Commerce, President of the Frostproof Rotary Club, a board member of the Frostproof Middle/Senior High School Advisory Committee and co-chair of the employee giving United Way of Central Florida campaign for Citizens Bank and Trust. Knowing, however, that building cross-county relationships can only benefit his efforts in Frostproof, he has reached out to other communities. He is a graduate of Leadership Winter Haven Class 31 and just this past April completed his service on the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Advisory Council. This is a group that meets periodically with Sheriff Grady Judd to serve as a focus group of sorts on issues affecting the county’s law enforcement.
When discussing his greatest accomplishment outside of his profession, he cites chairing the 2011 Frostproof Relay for Life. His grandmother had recently lost her battle with cancer and while that event takes a tremendous amount of work and volunteer coordination, it was worth every hour knowing she would be tremendously proud.
Thank you to the event sponsors: