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Kathy Miller

A college professor, a health care executive, a field representative for the California State Assembly, a banker and a lawyer board a GET bus.

No, this isn't the opening of a bad joke. This happens regularly.

Joining them on the bus is a nonprofit organization's director, an environmental advocate and a small-business owner. Together they travel throughout town, exploring local programs, delving into community needs and honing their leadership skills.

Just who is this diverse group? They are members of the Leadership Bakersfield class of 2012.

For the past 25 years, similar groups have gathered as part of Leadership Bakersfield, a program of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce that identifies and motivates existing and emerging community leaders.

The carefully selected class members spend one Friday each month learning about issues facing the different sectors of our community. They board a GET bus for field trips to explore agriculture; arts and culture; communications and media; criminal justice; education; health and human services; leadership; energy; and government. Each topic is presented by prominent individuals from the public and private sectors and involves in-depth conversations about current issues, site visits and hands-on experiences.

Whether a class member has grown up in Bakersfield or is new to the community, each day cultivates many "wow, I had no idea" learnings. This knowledge translates into action when class members divide into teams to evaluate and implement a community-benefit project.

The projects, which began with the class of 1989-90, have left an indelible mark on our community. There have been landmark projects, such as the attainment of the All-America City designation; creation of the Cancer Survivors Plaza at Beach Park; affiliation with Keep America Beautiful to Keep Bakersfield Beautiful; and the creation of a program to identify future leaders earlier -- Youth Leadership Bakersfield.

Other projects have created websites, developed marketing plans, conducted community studies and surveys, renovated buildings and landscaping, and offered educational programs about graffiti, recycling, health and even annexation. Leadership Bakersfield projects are as varied as the community members involved.

When you meet one of the more than 700 Leadership Bakersfield graduates, they won't hesitate to share their experiences of the 10-month program. In fact, you may have a hard time getting them to stop talking!

This is a program that not only changes and shapes the community, but also the lives of those involved.

As an alumna of the class of 1995-96, I vividly remember my overnight ride-along with the Bakersfield Police Department. The adrenaline rush that comes with experiencing a lights-and-sirens response to an armed robbery is something you don't forget easily. To this day, I have enormous respect for the restraint and professionalism of our law enforcement officers.

I also acutely recall my first visit to the Bakersfield Homeless Center and my surprise to see many families, not just individuals, receiving services. From touring juvenile hall and seeing the processing of baby carrots to attending a City Council meeting, my horizons were definitely expanded.

There is no doubt that the legacy of Leadership Bakersfield's first 25 years runs deep and touches every corner of our community. To celebrate the program's community contributions and reconnect with each other, alumni will gather on Oct. 4 for an all-class reunion. Naturally, in true Leadership Bakersfield style, the evening's agenda also includes a community service component to benefit three local nonprofit agencies.

If the success of Leadership Bakersfield is measured by the positive effect on the participants, their organizations and the community, I can't wait to see what the next 25 years will bring.

Kathy Miller is the public affairs-communications coordinator for Aera Energy LLC and serves on the Leadership Bakersfield Advisory Board. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.