The Elite Leadership Summit aims to help future leaders grow

Ryan Nowak, left, co-founder of The Elite and St. Bernard School principal, takes a picture of Nikki Kelle as Managing Leader status on the final day of The Elite Leadership Summit. The Message photo by Megan Erbacher

By Megan Erbacher

The Message editor

When Nikki Kelle learned about The Elite Leadership Summit this summer, she thought it sounded like a good experience to put on her resume. An eighth grader at St. John the Baptist School in Newburgh, Kelle, 13, wanted to attend to build skills for her future. 

Kelle was one of 40 middle school students who participated in the inaugural The Elite Leadership Summit from June 17-20 at Ivy Tech Community College in Evansville. The incoming sixth through eighth grade students represented 13 local schools.

The Elite Leadership Summit, Inc., provides networking and leadership opportunities for middle school students to learn from community leaders while completing innovative, real-world tasks.

“I’ve learned how to talk to people and get them to like you,” Kelle said. “I really enjoyed the first day when we got to meet all of the different business people and talk to them.”

Amanda Cadden, middle school math teacher at St. John in Newburgh, and Ryan Nowak, principal of St. Bernard School in Rockport, founded the nonprofit The Elite Leadership Summit, Inc. in March.

In 2018, when the two taught at St. Wendel School in St. Wendel, they created an event called SWIRL. Since they no longer teach together, they felt the need to create a similar opportunity open to students in parochial and public schools across the Tri-State to help them learn real-world skills for outside the classroom.

“Amanda’s energy and passion for helping others is contagious,” Nowak said. “Her vision for The Elite was something I couldn’t say no to, and I’m grateful we were able to reconnect and make this happen.” 

“When you get into the real world, you have to be able to mingle with people, think outside the box, think on your feet and even when you’re not confident, how to sound confident,” Cadden said. “All of those skills I feel students should learn in school, but we just don’t have time.”

The mission of The Elite Leadership Summit, Inc., is to “collaborate with community leaders and create real-world projects, for middle school students, that are informed by their expertise and experiences. This challenge is designed to help students develop the essential skills to succeed in society, regardless of their academic abilities. Students learn to discover and use their strengths to contribute to the good of the group and gain confidence by completing tasks.”

The four-day summit consisted of various community and business leaders volunteering to share their knowledge and experience with students. Following the workshops, students competed in real-world tasks where they had to develop their interpersonal skills and grow as leaders. Volunteer leaders included Mayor of Evansville Stephanie Terry, three local school superintendents and Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari Marketing Director Ashley Blankenbaker.

“The students learn a lot about themselves as they lead in different ways throughout the week,” Nowak said.

Middle schoolers are very impressionable, Cadden noted.

“They’re still trying to figure out who they are,” she said. “So this Leadership Summit allows them to, hopefully, form who they are, or to figure out what their leadership voice is and how to make that work in a group setting. Not everyone has to be the loudest voice or the quickest thinker. It doesn’t matter what your skills are, everyone fits in a group. They just have to know how to present their ideas effectively, or how to listen to other people’s ideas, to make sure you’re getting the best out of your group.”

Mia Oliva learned how to work well under stress. Oliva, 13, is an eighth grader at St. John in Newburgh.

“Keeping your composure while there are a lot of people laughing, but trying to explain that we need to work, was something I learned,” she said. “This has been my first camp in a while where every day I want to come back, and I'm really excited to come to camp.”

Amelia Vance especially enjoyed when the West Side Nut Club presented. Vance, 13, is an eighth grader at Evansville Day School.

“I've always been a leader, per se, so I thought it would be a good opportunity,” she said. “Something I learned is how to manage a big group of people while still being respectful.”

St. John eighth grader Rose Niehaus, 13, learned how to make a good first impression.

Katherine Bohleber, 12, enjoyed pitching a new food booth for the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival. A seventh grader from St. Philip School in Posey County, Bohleber encouraged more students to attend the camp.

On the final day of the Summit, the Elite Champions were named: Managing Leader Nikki Kelle and Team Cameron the Chameleon. Members included Marielle Guevara, Aldin Little, Cora Underhill, Phoebe Gander, Sophia Schulteis, Elliott Piekos and Isabella Lewis. Each student was awarded a medal and a free general admission ticket to Holiday World.

As Managing Leader, Kelle was also named The Elite and received the $500 scholarship grand prize.

“Middle schoolers, to me, are the group who needs the most hands up to help them figure out where they stand and how to be a positive role model and a positive leader now and in the future,” Cadden said.

Nowak and Cadden plan to offer The Elite Leadership Summit in the summer of 2025.

Managing Leaders on the final day of The Elite Leadership Summit are Rose Niehaus, left, Katherine Bohleber, Amelia Vance, Nikki Kelle and Mia Oliva. The Message photo by Megan Erbacher