A View From Within: Todd Wolford Reflects on Appalachian Leadership Institute Experience

Our guest blogger, Todd Wolford (pictured left), serves as the Executive Director of Wytheville’s local Advancing Virginia Main Street (AVMS) organization, Downtown Wytheville, Inc. (DWI). Prior to working for DWI, Wolford was the Community Program Coordinator for the Town of Wytheville, where he oversaw all community programs, events and continued development of outdoor recreation. He possesses a strong passion for public service and working with people to achieve positive results!

If you would have told me that I would embark on one of the most beneficial trainings in my career during a pandemic year where Zoom meetings seem like a think of the past, I would have not believed it for a second. When I first heard about the Appalachian Leadership Institute, I was attending the first inaugural Southwest Virginia Rise Emerging Leadership Program. This program brought leaders from across SWVA together to discuss ideas and create solutions that will benefit the entire region. As a Main Street director, I felt this would be a great opportunity to grow and work with others in the region with similar aspirations to create a positive impact for their respective communities. Little did I know at the time that this would lead to more opportunities for continued professional growth and collaboration on initiatives across the ARC.

If the SWVA Rise program and my work as a Main Street director has taught me one thing, it is the power of partnerships. A few colleagues from the program had mentioned the Appalachian Leadership Institute and it being a program that was a selection process from aspiring leaders across the ARC region. So right then and there, I knew this is something I wanted to be a part of. I am up for anything that challenges me and allows me to fulfill my internal goals while being pushed outside of my comfort zone. In mid-2020, I was selected for the 2nd inaugural class of the Appalachian Leadership Institute. Granted, I have attended many trainings and sessions prior, but this felt different. I was chosen by a committee for the work I had put in to better my community. They felt I belonged and that alone empowered me to believe I did as well.

A big part of my reasoning for applying to this session was having the opportunity to travel and see other communities and interact with other chosen leaders from across the ARC region. Unfortunately, the pandemic put much of that on hold, but to my surprise the institute facilitators did an exceptional job of keeping everyone engaged and working together through our individual teams and as a group on various challenges and initiatives. I was a member of Team Diamond (pictured left).

Coming in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. You read all the bios of your chosen classmates and some with laundry lists of experiences that may make you question why you were chosen in the first place. But, we must remember, we were chosen for a reason and that alone should make us all feel good about what we have accomplished to get here and all that we will gain from this program to implement in our own communities moving forward.

One thing that stuck out to me was the diversity among this group. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did as your profession. When we all came together, we all contributed to the conversation. That alone reminded me so much of our Main Street directors network. I can’t tell you how refreshing that was to be a part of especially with everything going on in the world we live in. Real world topics and opportunities kept us all engaged with the various projects through this training. We have all been to those trainings or sessions that present cookie cutter approaches or what if scenarios, but what we did in these sessions was real. Our work as a group presented the opportunity to impact communities in a real way. To me, that felt genuine and engaging, and that was probably my favorite thing about the ARC leadership program outside of meeting a new network of friends and colleagues.

Throughout the sessions and collaborating together, even through Zoom, I felt a connection that was real and sincere. That kept me engaged and wanting more from this group. We constantly checked in with each other, worked on special projects outside of the sessions and, as busy as we all are, I always made time for this group. Looking back, I’m so glad I did. When we finally came together in Washington, D.C. for our graduation ceremony, it was so nice to meet all of this group in person. It was just a very different feeling after interacting virtually and then meeting and picking up like we had known each other for quite some time. Again, it was very refreshing considering all that we have been through.

In closing I must say, the Appalachian Leadership Institute program was like no other program I have been a part of. Working through issues that impact real communities across the ARC, learning and creating alongside my new colleagues, and valuing each other’s input while coming together to reach goals and objectives was so rewarding and empowering to me. The Appalachian Leadership Institute has taught me so much about partnerships and collaboration. Having the opportunity to be a part of this class has impacted the work I do locally. I have truly met some of the best people through this program. It feels good to know that there are still good people doing great things in communities across the Appalachian region. It is my hope that we can all continue to collaborate across state lines to work on initiatives that impact the entire ARC. I think the leadership institute alone can set the stage for the region and lead a charge. I hope we will be called upon to facilitate positive change in the future. If I have learned one thing about this group, we will be ready!

I am forever grateful for my experience here and the lasting friendships that came from this opportunity!