Thursday, July 29, 2021

Creating Servant Leaders: Executive Director Zach Barton and Leadership Centre County help program participants make a difference in their community

Zach Barton took the helm as executive director of Leadership Centre County in June 2020, in the middle of a pandemic. He succeeded Georgia Abbey, who had been in the role for two decades. Barton is a 2018 graduate of the Leadership program, a community leadership development organization with the mission to educate participants about the needs, available services and opportunities, and issues in our community.

Born and raised in DuBois, Barton graduated from Penn State in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice and minors in sociology and business. He then became a case manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern New Jersey for three years.

After returning to Centre County, Barton joined the Centre County Youth Service Bureau. During six years at the YSB, he spent time as the program director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Centre, Mifflin, and Juniata Counties and as the organization’s development director. He has also served on the board of the State College Young Professionals and is a member of the Downtown State College Rotary Club.

Like many organizations, Leadership Centre County had to adjust its programming because of the pandemic. Fortunately, this June 1, participants of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 graduated, including the program’s 1000th graduate. Barton is looking forward to a return to more “normal” programming for the Class of 2022.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Barton via Zoom to discuss the impact of Leadership Centre County and issues in our community it can help address to make Happy Valley a better place to live.

Mimi: You’ve been in the nonprofit world all your life. Did you volunteer a lot as a youngster?

Zach: I didn’t volunteer much during my childhood. In middle school and high school, I wasn’t as involved in volunteering or the community. I was really involved in sports at that time, personally focused in the weight room, running, doing those sorts of things. When I started college at Penn State, I was at University Park, and I was looking for a way to get involved. You know this better than anyone, how many available options there are just on the campus itself. And I thought it would be neat to go off-campus and get involved in the town.

So, my first sort of dipping my toes into the water was with Big Brothers Big Sisters. One of their case managers spoke at one of my classes on campus. I came back to my dorm, and I was excited. And I told my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, and I told my roommate, “Hey, we should do this. We should become mentors. We should be matched with a kid in the community.” So, they went down to the orientation with me, but I was the only one who followed through with it at the time.

Mimi: The business you’re in is really in part selling nonprofit participation. Because to become a good leader, you have to know the community. And you have to be a part of it to ever be a true leader.

Mimi Barash Coppersmith

Zach: When people think of Leadership Centre County, you see that first-word “Leadership,” but our program isn’t about watching 10 webinars about leadership or reading 100 books about leadership. That’s a really small portion of what we do with our organization.

What you just said there is key. It’s community-mindedness. It’s building servant leaders; it’s about educating people about the issues and concerns facing our community, and how they can get involved to make a difference.

Our program year runs 10 months, from September until June, and each month we focus on a different area, such as health and human services, government and criminal justice, education, our local economy, environment, and so on. So, in a sense, it’s a leadership program because that’s built in to every program day where we talk about professional and personal development, build networking, and there’s the business aspect to it. But it’s really about creating servant leaders.

Mimi: What are your best examples of success? Who are some of the people that Leadership Centre County has transformed into better citizens? Do you have any stars that jump out?

Zach: Wow, this is such a hard question because there are so many people that immediately come to my mind. OK, I’ll start here. Leadership is primarily a volunteer-run organization and I’m the only full-time staff member at our nonprofit. I’m extremely lucky to have one amazing part-time support staff and also great Penn State student interns. I have the pleasure of working with nearly 100 active volunteers who serve on various committees, including our volunteer board of directors. Success to me is seeing those 100 volunteers, the majority who completed our program and are now alumni, giving their time and expertise to help craft our program and guide our organization for the current and future class members.

It’s so hard for me to highlight only a couple of people, but I’ll give a shout out to the new executive director of the Centre County United Way, Leanne Lenz (Class of 2007), and the fairly new superintendent of the Bellefonte Area School District, Tammie Burnaford (Class of 2018). Leanne and Tammie are both exceptional leaders in their workplaces and in our community, and they both choose to volunteer their time and give their talents to Leadership; Leanne as a newly appointed board member and Tammie as a committee member and education day presenter.

Leadership has become such an integral part of our community because of people like those two, and our 1,000 alumni. Those 1,000 include business owners, educators, a lot of Penn State staff and faculty, local and state government officials, members from our local media, Realtors, judges, nonprofit leaders, engineers, bankers, and on and on and on. I pay attention to our local news – print, TV, radio; you can’t pay attention and not see Leadership alumni doing amazing things. You can’t go to a Centre County business lunch or a business function and not run into Leadership graduates.

Mimi: There’s collegiality that results from the groups that work together. How has Leadership Centre County participation aided people in ascending in their careers? Who are the examples that have learned the things that made it possible for them to achieve the next level of leadership in their work area?

Zach: That’s so true, and I joke with my wife about Leadership being like a small college. You feel that same connection between our class members and with our alumni. For them, Leadership is something that they’ll always be a part of. This past June, [we reached] our 1,000th graduate since our founding in 1991. I think your question is better asked to those graduates, not me. I’ll direct your readers to our website (; we have testimonials from eight graduates there. It’s a small sample size, but if you talk with most of our program graduates, it’s a safe bet that you’ll hear positive things.

I think now, as we emerge from the pandemic, now is the perfect time to reevaluate our lives. It’s the perfect time to invest in yourself, invest in your company, and invest in our community.

Mimi: Have you decided who was your 1,000th graduate?

Zach: We have. The Class of 2020, which began in the fall of 2019, was supposed to graduate in June of 2020. But COVID-19 happened and their program year was postponed midway through. Our 1,000th graduate is Brady Grove from The Hartman Group. The way that number 1,000 was chosen is, we had 974 graduates prior to their class year. Georgia Abbey and her committee paid attention and said, “OK, we’re going to watch these applications as they’re rolling in; when number 1,000 hits, that’s who we’re going to select.” So that’s a behind-the-scenes of how he was selected. And it’s a major milestone for our organization.

Mimi: Most people want to make a difference, but they don’t know how to express themselves. Most people want to do good. Your job is to always be a mentor.

Zach: There’s a lot of people, like you just said, who want to make a difference, and maybe they don’t know how. I see myself as a connector, where I can tell them, “OK, you were motivated by government and criminal justice day. Do you know how to get involved locally with the public government?” And then putting them in touch with the right people and giving them that education. I take that very seriously. I love my job. I think I can have a real impact on this community. So that makes me really happy.

Mimi: I want our readers to know that it’s $2,255 for each person that goes to Leadership Centre County.

Zach: That’s correct. The majority of our applicants are sponsored financially by their employer. Those employers see immediate differences in their staff; an increased leadership skill set, a broadened knowledge of their community, and an expanded network of peers. However, not all class members are sponsored by their employers, and we have a wide range of people from varying financial situations who come through our program. Self-employed individuals, young professionals, retirees on fixed incomes, nonprofit staff, etc. Thanks to some of our most generous alumni and a huge thanks to Restek Corporation, we do have scholarship funding that anyone can apply for and that will help offset the costs of our tuition.

Like you said, $2,255 is not a small check. But we believe in our program; we believe the training development that we’re giving these individuals is going to make them better for themselves, their employers, and our community.

Mimi: Prejudices stand in the way of our progress, and it’s extremely important that they be discussed. Better out than in.

Zach: You’re right. During the (opening) retreat, one of our exercises is asking, “What are the issues that you’re facing in your municipality and what are the issues you’re facing in our county?” We ask them to address those within four hours of meeting each other, and we have an in-depth conversation. What we see over the years, it’s been affordable housing, it has been the opioid crisis, it’s been a reliance on Penn State.

Mimi: It shouldn’t be defined as reliance; it should be defined as appreciation. What would we be without the university?

Zach: Please come and speak to our next class in the fall. As a 2011 Penn State graduate, I couldn’t agree more with you. Of course, what I think the class means by reliance, we’ve seen this past year with students not being in the area how detrimental that was to our community, small businesses, shopping, restaurants and bars. And this year, another one of the issues was race relations and social justice.

Mimi: It hasn’t gone away.

Zach: It’s not going to go away immediately. It’s going to take people having discussions, and it will take people going into the community.

Mimi: It takes more people discussing it, disagreeing, figuring out how to meet.

Zach: That is one of [the issues], and I could talk to five other people, and they’ll all give me a different issue that’s on their mind right now. That’s what’s so special about working with this organization. I’m talking with professionals whose work deals with our economy, people working in public education, people worried about the environment, and bringing them all together and asking, “What’s going on in your world?” Because I’m not an expert on any of those topics and I’m not arrogant or naive to think that I know everything happening in the county.

That’s where I think the power of Leadership is at, because we may have a class member who attends history day in the fall and just doesn’t like it. History isn’t for them. The next day is health and human services day in November, and maybe they’re moved by what Centre Helps is doing or what the Tides program is doing for people grieving a loss. That’s how they’ll chose to get involved.

Mimi: Well, there’s so much good about this community.

Zach: One of the biggest challenges that I face – and I learned this very quickly – is that there isn’t enough time during each program day. We have eight hours to focus on health and human services in Centre County, eight hours to focus on the arts in Centre County, eight hours to focus on the environment, etc. How do you cover everything in an eight-hour timeframe?

For example, for our recent health and human services day we focused on a diversity and inclusion; we brought in Marisa Vicere from Jana Marie Foundation this year to talk about suicide awareness, and we had a panel of individuals from local government, nonprofit organizations, and the Centre County Council for Human Resources. We brought them together to sort of give our class members a 10,000-foot view of what’s happening. That is such a challenge to explain everything that’s happening. The county does a nice job with their Purple Book: Mental Health Resources. But there’s never enough time. And as we progress into the next year, I’m just trying to evaluate how we do this best.

All of our class members are put into small groups throughout the year, and they’re asked to complete one community service project. So, we solicit proposals from nonprofit organizations during the summer. They give us these projects that a group of volunteers can complete. Those organizations are being introduced to our class.

Mimi: I think we are an intelligent, diversified community that needs to learn more about communicating together to solve very complex issues. And I think Leadership Centre County could play a huge role in that effort.

Zach: I agree. One of our sessions during government and criminal justice day this year was about civil discourse and working with individuals who may not see issues the same way you do.

Mimi: The bottom line is, despite the conflict, the disorder at times, we live in an absolutely beautiful community and are very lucky. So many people who leave Centre County return here. And there’s a reason for that, because I don’t think everyone knows how good we have it here. I will close on a message that my second husband left with me: The nicest thing about being angry is making up. Thank you.

Zach: Thank you for taking the time; this was an honor to have had the conversation.