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Watch now: Macon County students' leadership earns Governor's Cup

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DECATUR — Grace Pugh gets a kick out of bringing joy to others, especially the less fortunate among us.

“Being a part of all this has brought me a lot of job satisfaction and I know we have brought some joy to the residents of Macon County,” said Pugh.

And she’s not alone. Pugh, 18, is president of the Macon County-based Young Leaders in Action organization, comprising more than 100 high school students from sophomores through seniors who think and believe as she does.

And now their volunteer work to help others has caught the attention and admiration of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and made some history: They are the first student group to ever win the Governor’s Cup, an award that honors those who strive to improve a community’s quality of life.

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We've won the cup: Young Leaders In Action president Grace Pugh with the Governor's Cup after the presentation ceremony Sunday.  

The governor made the presentation earlier in the week in a virtual ceremony but, on Sunday, the students gathered at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel to receive the glittering cup, display presentations about their work and, later, enjoy some DJ music and have a little well-deserved fun.

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The cup was handed over by Noelle Ayoka Samuels, executive director of the Serve Illinois Commission, which manages and presents the awards on behalf of the state’s chief executive. Samuels said the kids from Macon County beat out a field of 40 entries full of good works done by all kinds of agencies and organizations, most of them run by adults.

But she said the students impressed with their sheer drive and enthusiasm for projects throughout the year. Samuels said recognizing their efforts was enlightened self-interest for a state eager to nurture the future generations who will lead us.

“These will be our next governor, our next business owners, leaders of schools, teachers, councilman, mayors,” she added. “And if they are already doing all this now as young people, you can only imagine what types of contributions they are going to make when they become our age.”

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Different teams from the Young Leaders In Action organization displayed poster boards of events and activities from throughout the year. Sydney Pennypacker, 18, was busy pointing out highlights at Sunday's award ceremony. "Our slogan is 'Be the Change,'" she said. 

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Some of the projects tackled ranged from serving food at the Oasis Day Center in Decatur, gathering donated books to help low-income students and even wandering grocery store aisles to hand out donated $50 gift cards to senior shoppers.

Other YLIA teams have tackled social issues, such as researching the difficulties faced in class by minority students, with presentations then made to other members of the YLIA so all can share in the lessons learned.

Their efforts go on and on like this, exposing teenagers to the realities, challenges and opportunities to make change in the world around them.

“Being in a group like this, where you go out and see all these different problems, it really puts it into perspective how much is out there that needs attention,” said Sophie Howe, 17, a student at Eisenhower High School.

Brandon Kondritz, a 17-year-old junior at Mount Zion High School, said young people need to know this stuff and learn from it. “I think we are teaching our future leaders how to be better leaders whenever they go off to college and careers,” he added. “We’ll be able to build on skills we’ve been working on here at home.”

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Noelle Ayoka Samuels, executive director of the Serve Illinois Commission, prepares to present the Governor's Cup to Grace Pugh, president of Young Leaders In Action. 

YLIA is an initiative of The Community Foundation of Macon County and Rotary Club No. 180 of Decatur. The adult facilitator for the YLIA is Jarmese Sherrod, who said the students were divided into 13 teams and, after a little supervision to help them get started, then went off and did all the hard work themselves. She said the task of the YLIA is to improve life and show young people the potential coiled like a spring in their own lives and futures.

Watch now: 'Just getting started': Young Leaders in Action rise to challenge during pandemic

“If we want these students to lead, we’ve got to invest in them now, and the YLIA is an example of investing in them now,” Sherrod said. “And then they went out and did the work and look at where they are at: winning the Governor’s Cup.”

The Governor’s Cup organizers said they were so impressed with the YLIA, and the high benchmark of success they set, that students from the group will be invited to act as judges to help determine future cup winners.


Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid

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