To outsiders, the City of Buffalo has a rather distasteful reputation for being a city of high poverty, bad weather and underachieving sports teams. Although the culture and the people are both world-class, the city’s economy has been on a downswing, with a current unemployment rate of 8.5 percent and approximately 30 percent of people living below the poverty line. With a crippled economy and a tough job market, it is perfectly understandable why Buffalo’s brightest minds would rather take their talents elsewhere, to such places as New York City and Silicon Valley. However, there is a group working to change all that, to keep the sharpest minds to come out of Western New York staying here – Leadership Buffalo.

Established more than 25 years ago, Leadership Buffalo aims – through a variety of programs – to unite diverse leaders from all over the region, as well as develop and groom the next generation of leaders in Western New York. One of those programs is Youth Leadership Erie County, which takes young potential leaders from all over WNY and grooms them into the future pillars of the community. With the ultimate goal of putting Buffalo back on the map – and for all the right reasons – YLEC is playing a big part in achieving that dream.

Founded in 1987 by Susy Warren, YLEC has provided high school students, sophomores to seniors, with a way to experience a side of Buffalo they haven’t seen before.

“Our endgame is to make Buffalo better,” says Althea Luehrsen, the fourth executive director of Leadership Buffalo and a graduate of LB herself. “Kids in YLEC get to be immersed in a part of Buffalo they never knew existed.”

Although YLEC is optimistic about the potential of the city and its bright young minds, it knows that Buffalo has its fair share of problems.

“Sometimes the kids see the challenges we have in Buffalo, but we also help them look at it from a glass half-full perspective, so they can say, ‘OK, we have some challenges in our community, but what can we do to make it better?’ ” Luehrsen said.

Actually, the kids in the 2013 class of YLEC have been working to achieve that goal. They work in teams on community service projects, from a graffiti cleanup to helping newly arrived immigrants become acclimated to the community to cleaning up LaSalle Park, as Park School senior Nadierah Sanders and her group, “Open and Change,” are planning to do.

These teams are assisted by mentors, people from businesses and organizations around Buffalo that help mold and shape the kids’ projects. But this isn’t a case of the adults doing the kids’ jobs for them – in fact, they have very high praise for the students.

“These are some the most creative kids I’ve ever worked with. It’s just been really fun,” said mentor Kathleen Ballard.

Another mentor, Mark Anderson, added, “The kids create the project. The mentors just help mold it into shape.”

Of course, all the work that YLEC does would be moot if the kids didn’t enjoy it. However, they give glowing reviews for YLEC.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” says Madeline Caywood, a sophomore at City Honors School. “Everyone’s really friendly, and the whole thing is really interesting.”

Monica Schubbe, a junior at Immaculata Academy, adds, “I learned that Buffalo offers a lot more than I thought. I would definitely do it again.”

“I learned a lot more about how the city works together, and I saw different areas that I normally don’t see,” said Kayleigh Godfrey, a junior at Nardin Academy.

Add in that it also looks great on a college resume, and the students have a recipe for a fulfilling experience.

Buffalo has been making strides in working to improve its image and make the city a destination for business and commerce, and YLEC is playing a role in this citywide face-lift. Helping to foster and retain sharp young people in Western New York might help to make a difference – not to mention how much the students learn and how much fun they have.

Zachary Jabine is a freshman at City Honors.