WESTCHASE — While growing up, Kyle Johnson always excelled in academics. He had a loyal circle of friends. His performing talents included music and the theatre. He was versatile.
But he never truly considered himself a leader.
Johnson, a Westchase resident and rising senior in Robinson High School's International Baccalaureate program, was honored this summer as one of five winners of the Bank of America Student Leader award, which emphasizes community work and volunteerism.
Johnson, who has a 4.0 unweighted grade point average and lists his dream colleges as Yale or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received a paid internship with the Town 'N Country Boys & Girls Club, where he served as a program leader and also logged time in the administrative offices to learn more about the workings of a nonprofit agency.
Additionally, Johnson attended a weeklong national leadership summit in Washington, D.C., where he toured the monuments and spent a day on Capitol Hill, meeting with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and an aide to U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores.
"This has been an incredible summer,'' said Johnson, who also attended Boys State in Tallahassee and addressed 12,000 fellow students at the Future Business Leaders of America national convention, where he fell short of winning the organization's national presidency by a mere two votes.
Johnson deserved the life-changing experiences, according to Ann Shaler, Bank of America's Tampa-based senior vice president.
"Our goal is helping to identify how we replace the community leaders we have today with members of the next generation,'' Shaler said. "All you have to do is spend time with our five finalists to know that our world will continue to be in a good place. These students provide a lot of hope.''
Shaler described Johnson's Washington trip as a "business conference.'' She said LIFT, a national organization that works with families to break the cycle of poverty, delivered one of the more meaningful exercises.
Students were given identities and scenarios, such as a single mother of three children who was looking for affordable housing.
"They had to visit all these agencies and they saw the frustration,'' Shaler said. "Maybe they didn't have the right ID. Maybe they didn't have the right form for food stamps. And it would make them wonder, 'Why is it like this?'
"They'd break into small groups and talk about what they felt. And they'd consider what they, as a community, could do to help solve these problems. It was real-world problems and real-world solutions. These are the future leaders. We're in this for the long game, so not only will our communities get better informed and more compassionate young people, we'll see the benefits continue for 15 or 20 years down the line.''
Johnson, 17, said he already has seen benefits.
"I've learned so much,'' Johnson said. "I've become more aware of things going on in the world. I think that's naturally going to happen in a place like Washington, D.C. In elementary school, I don't think I would've called myself a leader. But I think I'm learning those skills and what it takes to lead.
"One of the speakers said, 'If it is to be, it's up to me.' That made sense. And we were shown that you can be a leader from all places in life. It doesn't matter where you start. You can use what you've been given. You can still become a leader when you start with nothing. It's a powerful lesson.''
Johnson also learned some powerful lessons at home, working for the Boys & Girls Clubs, which received a grant from Bank of America to fund the internship. It was Johnson's first paying job. All of the winners were given financial literacy tips from the program directors.
Otherwise, just being around the Boys & Girls Clubs children was a good experience.
"It was eye-opening,'' Johnson said. "It showed me issues I hadn't seen, such as kids not having enough food on the table because their parents are working multiple jobs, but enough money still isn't coming in.
"I feel like I have a better view of community issues. It has definitely moved me to come back here during the school year and work with these kids, even in the future, to see if I can help with some of the issues.''
Which is exactly the point of Bank of America's program.
"Kyle has gotten a taste of what it might be like when he's out of school, what kind of options exist,'' said Ricky Gallon, outreach director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. "He has learned some new skills. Some of our young people might be quiet at first, but when you work with kids, you open up and learn how to take charge.
"It's a great program for everyone involved. They all get something out of it.''
"It was a summer I won't forget,'' he said.
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]