By RENÉE JEAN
In life and leadership, you never know what can happen until you try.
That's a lesson that came home to Jennifer Cunningham recently in a good way, when the Garden City Municipal Court Administrator and Prosecutor was selected for the 2014 Leadership Kansas Class. Some 600 people throughout Kansas were nominated for the opportunity, and only 40 were chosen.
Leadership Kansas is in its 36th year now and numbers some 1,400 alumni, including such distinguished names as former Speaker of the house and current Kansas Chamber CEO Mike O'Neal; former Gov. Bill Graves; and CEO of the Kroger Co., David Dillon, to name a few.
Leadership Kansas is an affiliated program of the Kansas Chamber, whose mission is to inspire people in Kansas to do great things with the social, business and political fabric of their communities.
The candidates were selected to represent the geographic, racial, occupational and gender diversity of Kansas as a whole. All participants are exposed to a variety of experts and training sessions on topics ranging from business, education, agriculture, public policy, societal health and development, economics and government.
Cunningham found out about Leadership Kansas when she was a college intern for John Fedrico, who is executive director of the nationally recognized program. The lawmaker hires one intern every legislative session. One year, Cunningham was his pick.
"It was the time when they're doing the applications for the leadership conference," she said. "I inquired what the program is about, and they told me how leaders from around the state would come and learn about the different issues affecting people in Kansas, and talk about what we, as leaders, could do to make it better. I always thought, man that would be so cool. I hope I get a position someday where I could apply for that."
Cunningham found her way to Garden City about four years ago. She grew up in Colorado, and earned an undergraduate degree at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. She lived a year in North Carolina working for an attorney, then decided to go to law school at Washburn University, in Topeka.
She arrived in Garden City fresh out of law school, where she became city prosecutor.
The community here won her over in short order.
"I will probably live the rest of my life here," she said. "My husband is an attorney, and we fell in love with the small-town community. People are so gracious and open. We've found it a great place to be."
Last year in April, Cunningham's position was combined with municipal court administration — just the sort of position needed to qualify for the Leadership Kansas program she'd thought was so cool as an intern. City Manager Matt Allen, an alum of the program himself, nominated her for it.
"Basically someone has to nominate you," Cunningham explained. "And they kind of prefer that it's an alumni person because they know what is required."
As a member of Leadership Kansas, Cunningham will tour the state, starting in April, to learn more about the challenges and issues facing cities like Manhattan, Salina, Wichita and yes, even Garden City. The Garden city segment is May 28 through 30. The optional, last segment is in Pittsburg in October.
"I feel an overwhelming responsibility for the state," Cunningham said. "Part of being a lawyer and prosecutor is doing things to help our community, and what happens in a wider spectrum makes a big difference."
In addition, she hopes to learn different ways to be a leader, not just in her job, but also in the community.
"I'm big into kids, so if I can get the younger people in Garden City to do better things and meet other people who are interested in doing something bigger for our state — that's what I want to do," she said. "We'll be coming together as a group and using our skills to make our state a better place to live. That's what it's all about."