BENNINGTON -- On Friday, nine Mount Anthony Union High School sophomores and juniors toured downtown Bennington, meeting with community leaders, business owners, and other professionals in downtown Bennington.
This was done as part of the "Emerging Leaders" program, which is run cooperatively between MAUHS and The Community College of Vermont. The students were selected by peers, teachers, and counselors to be a part of the program. Amy Beth Kessinger, MAUHS's Community School coordinator, who works as the high school's liaison for the program, said, "Basically, I was looking for students who have a spark, the intellectual potential to become leaders."
The program started as one for sophomores last year, but this year was the first that juniors were included as well.
The students walked with Kessinger from MAUHS to CCV Friday afternoon, where they went over potential questions they had come up with to ask their interviewees, as well as interviewing techniques, such as clear diction and confident body language.
The students then divided into three pre-determined groups based on their interests, each of which was scheduled to perform four half-hour interviews.
Jeannie Jenkins, coordinator of academic services at CCV, invited me to travel with one of the groups. I chose to tag along with Group 3, which was led by Kessinger, which included students Sara Henderson, who said she was interested in cosmetology and science, Gretchen Sausville, who wants to be an English teacher, and Brady Gerow, who wants to go into business.
Group 1 visited Crazy Russian Girls Bakery, the VA clinic, metalsmith Katie Cleaver, and Knapps Music, Toys, and Hobbies. Group 2 visited the Stram Center for Integrative Medicine, Gamer's Grotto, Faller's Music, and Adam Samrov and Geoff Smith of the Bennington Banner.
Group 3's first stop was the Bennington Town Offices, where the three students met with Michael Harrington, Bennington's Economic and Community Development Director. Harrington began by telling them a little bit about his job, his early life, and how he came to be in the position he's in today. "Wherever I ended up, the question you always have to ask yourself is, are you adding value? Otherwise, you're just another person sitting around a table, and we already have enough people sitting around a table not adding value," said Harrington.
Harrington stressed the importance of the students making connections, building relationships, and putting the best foot forward, because you never know when a connection in a job you don't like can lead to a job you love. "Always be willing to be open to a new opportunity," said Harrington. "You have to say to yourself; I may not like this job," he said, "but what can I learn, what skills, what connections?"
"Any opportunity that comes your way, even if it means added responsibility and added work, it will probably have some payoff," said Harrington, "Any opportunities that come your way, jump on it, because those are the next steps."
"What keeps you motivated," asked Brady when Harrington was done giving his presentation.
"Well, before I came in here I had a cup of coffee," joked Harrington, before answering more seriously, "I love Bennington, and I want to make a difference in the community." He closed by telling the students that sometimes the best strategy is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and building life experiences. "The more experiences you have out on your own, and you come through on the other side, you build confidence in yourself."
The group then walked down South Street to Fiddlehead at Four Corners, where they met with owners Joel and Nina Lentzer. Joel Lentzer told the story of how he used to teach preschool and kindergarten, and his wife taught graduate school, before they got into the art business.
"How did you get from here to there?" asked Brady.
"We never imagined that this is where we'd end up. I really thought I'd be in education," said Lentzer, who said he and his wife had purchased the property, which had previously been a bank, because of how they viewed downtown Bennington. "It's this thriving renaissance [of the arts], and we're going to be the epicenter in Bennington," said Joel Lentzer of their hopes, before shrugging and noting that they were still waiting for the renaissance of Main Street.
Lentzer also spoke about some of the struggles that go along with running a small business. "I don't think it's a matter of ‘Us versus Them'," Lentzer said of corporate stores, "I don't think that anyone is taking anyone else's business. I think it's a different kind of business."
Next, the group met with Gail Bolger, who owns Green Mountain Oasis and Karma Cat Yoga Studio. Like Lentzer, she never expected to be in her position. "I did a little yoga when I was younger, and I certainly enjoyed receiving massages, but I never thought I would own a spa," said Bolger, whose daughter Bethany studied to become a certified masseuse in Florida, and eventually convinced her mother to get into the business. "Being a massage therapist is a great career path. If you feel like you're good with connecting with people, and improving their energy, it's a great field with a lot of opportunities," she said.
However, she encouraged the students to be flexible. "I'm always open to other opportunities," she said, "Nobody has to stay stuck in one thing, that's for sure."
Finally, the students concluded their walking tour in the sweetest way possible, by visiting with Kenny Monte at the Village Chocolate Shoppe. The son of owner Nick Monte, Kenny Monte worked at a pharmacy before coming to work for his father. That was a decision he doesn't regret. "The worst day in chocolate is better than the best day at the pharmacy," he said.
"As far as career paths to get here, mine was very convoluted," said Monte, "I was positive, when I was 12, 13 years old, that I wanted to be a biologist. Nope. They made me take way too much calculus," said Monte, which drew a laugh from the high schoolers and educators alike.
"Just like any job, anything you do, there's going to be highs and lows," said Monte of the chocolate business, looking back on making (as far as anyone can tell) the world's largest peanut butter cup last year as one of the highs. However, even then, a rogue pipe spewing chocolate onto the floor put the entire project in jeopardy.
When asked by the students what his favorite part of the job is, Monte answered without hesitation, "I'm making stuff that people are going to buy. That's the coolest thing, when people tell me, ‘I love your chocolate'."