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Ignite Michiana sets lofty goals for South Bend's future

A chilly trek at the windswept South Bend International Airport gave way to a warm, industrial-chic shindig of an evening inside the Studebaker Hangar — complete with two airplanes as well as some disco lights, popular music and bustling crowd of more than 700 local residents out to hear five-minute talks from some of the area's brightest youth.

It was a jarring, but not unpleasant, juxtaposition for those at Thursday's Ignite Michiana: Cleared For Takeoff event.

Willow Wetherall, executive director for Ignite Michiana, said the idea for an all-youth edition of the popular program series has been in the works for two years. It needed the touch of St. Joe CEO — a local yearlong entrepreneurial program for high school students — to come to fruition.

"The larger goal is talent retention," Wetherall said before the event started. "We want to make them feel like South Bend is a place where your dreams can come true. For the younger speakers, we hope they feel supported. For the older people in the crowd, we hope they feel a sense of optimism, a sense of the love these young people have for their city."

Attendees heard talks from 14 members of St. Joe CEO, ranging in topics from how to love South Bend, how to find your personal culture, to why art education is important and how to overcome adversity. The students come from all over the area, from public and private schools, from all parts of the county. The guests were a mixture of young and old, including families, local business leaders and elected officials.

Rose Veldman, a precocious freshman from St. Joseph High School, told the story of overcoming obstacles, as she revealed how she lost her legs during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti while saving the life of another girl at her orphanage. She was adopted by Tom and Anita Veldman, who brought her to the U.S. and have helped her learn how to use her "shiny" legs, made of "titaaaaaanium," she sings, referencing the pop song.

"I want to be remembered as someone who can inspire people. Everyone can inspire others," she said to the crowd. "What can you do?"

Phillip Williams, senior at Washington, spoke on community service. He hoped his personal story about restoring a basketball court at Kennedy Primary Academy would inspire others to take on projects even bigger in magnitude.

"It's great to see the community is behind us," he said, looking out on the gathering crowd before the event. "It means a lot to me personally. It shows us that all of these people want to support you. This is the youth in the community doing something great."

The event also served as a fundraiser for St. Joe CEO, according to event coordinator and St. Joe CEO member Cat Edmonds. The group raised $36,000 ahead of the program through sponsorships, and aimed to raise another $25,000 throughout the evening through a silent auction and other fundraising. She smiled, looking over the crowd; this was her first time planning a large-scale event, and she surpassed her goals.

The dollars raised through Thursday's event will become seed money for students in St. Joe CEO, according to Wetherall. They'll compete with their own business ideas, which will be publicly highlighted at a trade show on May 11 at Union Station.

"South Bend is incredibly vibrant, and it's absolutely coming back," Wetherall said. "These young people on stage are a testament to that."

Source: South Bend Tribune

By Amanda Gray

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