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When the pandemic started in March, Wheat Ridge resident Holly Storm was in the middle of participating in the Jefferson County Family Leadership Training Institute (FLTI) — a program coordinated by Colorado State University Extension that gives adults and teens a free opportunity to develop into civic leaders.

The 20-week program requires participants to develop a community project that is meaningful to them, and the pandemic provided Storm a unique opportunity to make a difference. Storm focused her project on advocating for state legislature to pass bills to address childcare issues related to the pandemic. She researched and learned how to advocate for state bills like HB20-1053, a bill signed by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in July that provides flexibility to Early Childhood Councils, which work to support young children and their families by building local early childhood systems. The Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonprofit nonpartisan advocacy organization, estimated before the bill was signed that the state was at risk of losing 55% of its pre-pandemic child care supply without public investment.

“It turned out, the most beneficial way we could use our energy and voice was by working on (supporting) legislation that creates more (childcare) consistency,” said Storm. “I was really worried about kids in our community being left alone so their parents can go work. There are so many single parents or families with two working parents and a lot of times, they are both in fields where they are considered essential workers and they have to work outside the house, especially in low-income families. Paying for childcare is a struggle enough for all families in Colorado.”

Storm was one of 13 residents who graduated from the FLTI program at a ceremony on Aug. 15 in Discovery Park in Wheat Ridge. The program started in January, but participants were forced to finish it virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Among the projects participants created included a podcast about diversity and social justice and a listening program to stop teen suicide.

Participants got to Zoom with local political figures and did a virtual day at the Capitol with Attorney General Phil Weiser. The program taught them how to utilize information and resources, how to engage with regional, state and federal elected officials, public speaking skills and more. Before the pandemic, dinner and childcare services were provided to participants who met once a week for the program.

“I have learned that there are more things to being a leader than just telling people what to do. You have to have empathy and show kindness,” said Lilith Syko, a 2020 graduate from the program. “You have to be able to understand what to do and help people even if they are not someone you like very much.”

Sriya Kasu, a 17-year-old senior at Cherry Creek High School and recent graduate of the FLTI program, spent her time in the program working on climate change issues. She is in the midst of creating a program where residents can gather and talk about small solutions to addressing climate change in a household like recycling.

In 2019, at least 175 residents completed the program.

“I made connections with people who don’t live where I do,” said Kasu, an Englewood resident. “I learned a lot about leadership, qualities a leader has and how to speak publicly.”