Talk to people around Akron’s Summit Lake and you’ll see everything they imagine it to be: A hub for outdoor activity, a place for families to spend the day or even a future location for a small amusement park.

Eric Smith, a volunteer coordinator for Junior Leadership Akron (JLA), took students in the program on a trip to Summit Lake on a recent Tuesday to hear about revitalization efforts underway at the lake and surrounding neighborhood, which faces problems with vacant and abandoned homes.

That’s a large part of what the JLA program is all about — exposing area high school students to the Akron community so they can see what’s going on and develop visions of their own.

“It’s not a shortage of money,” Smith said of other revitalization opportunities in the Akron area. “It’s a shortage of vision.”

JLA is modeled after Leadership Akron, a yearlong program designed to immerse area leaders into specific aspects of the community. Both programs meet once a month and spend the day learning about a select topic through speakers, activities and trips around the city.

This year’s class, the 30th one to go through JLA, will graduate from the program in April. Throughout the years, JLA has exposed more than 1,000 high school students to the inner workings of Akron. Karen May, also a volunteer coordinator, said roughly 47 kids complete the program each year.

She and Smith work with nearly every school in Akron, both public and private, to identify two kids from each school who would be a good fit for the program. May said while some schools choose not be involved, Akron Public Schools have full participation.

Ultimately, the schools make the decision as to which students participate. The program has baseline requirements — obtain a 3.0 GPA, be a junior, display leadership potential — but May said the students often aren’t top students or valedictorians.

“I like to think this program is for emerging leaders. Those kids you see great potential in, but they just need something like this, a little bit of guidance,” May said. “It’s really exciting to see how these kids grow by the end of the program.”

Opening eyes and doors

On a recent Tuesday, the students had their Environment Day, during which they toured places like City Scrap and Salvage to learn about recycling and Summit Lake to see revitalization initiatives.

“It was awesome to me to see how people with simple ideas could turn them into such big things,” said Ray Benson, 17, a junior at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, about the group working on Summit Lake revitalization efforts.

It’s common for Junior Leadership Akron students to find inspiration in the nooks and crannies of the program. Benson, for example, visited Akron Children’s Hospital during the program’s Health and Social Services Day in November. He now volunteers there at least three days a week.

“It’s amazing to me how they want to serve each kid and really provide for them,” Benson said.

Moving around the city exposes the students to new areas.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Darius Wood, 17, a junior at Kenmore High School. “There’s not a lot of time for anybody to actually travel around the city to see what’s there, what can be done for the city and what’s available for people who want it.”

When the students aren’t drawing inspiration from their travels, they’re networking with leaders they meet along the way.

Erica Barnes, 17, a junior at the NIHF STEM High School in Akron who wants to study civil engineering in college, said she met an African American woman working in the field as part of the program.

“It’s great to meet someone who’s in the position I want to be in who looks like me,” Barnes said. “A lot of [the speakers] are very passionate about what they do, so it’s good to hear about different programs from them.”

Future leaders

JLA is a nonprofit program of the Leadership Akron Alumni Association.

Dan Rice, the president of the Leadership Akron Alumni Association, said the program has potential to retain young Akron-area residents.

“If you’ve got a captive audience of the best and brightest minds in high school, show them the opportunity to make a difference in this community,” Rice said. “If you don’t see that, and you don’t feel like you can make a meaningful contribution, you’ll maybe go somewhere else.”

The benefits include not only the possibility of retention, but also nurturing the community.

“I think one of the most powerful things about Junior Leadership Akron is that it really sows the seeds of serving one’s community at an early age, and the impact of that will carry forward across their lifetimes,” said Mark Scheffler, the president of Leadership Akron.

The students will wrap up their program in April with a closing retreat and graduation ceremony.

“I think every kid gets something different out of it,” May said.

That was true for many of the participants in this year’s class. When asked their biggest takeaway from the program, each gave a unique response.

For Wood: “You have to have passion in order for your ideas to come true. No matter what anybody says about it, as long as you know what you’re doing and what you have to do to achieve it, you can do anything you want.”

For Benson: “Don’t underestimate your abilities that you’ve been given ... and develop a better world and really innovate the things that don’t even exist today.”

And for Barnes: “I’ve seen what it really means to be a leader. Not to just tell people what to do, but to actually listen and make a true difference.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom .