Kosciusko Youth Leadership Academy held its graduation dinner for its class of 2014. Keynote speaker was Indiana District 22 State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, who spoke about leadership. Pictured (L to R) are: Kubacki; Nolan Sponseller, KYLA 2013-14 at-large board member, Tippecanoe Valley High School; Tony Ciriello, KYLA moderator; Jacob Reynolds, KYLA 2014-15 at-large board member Warsaw Community High School; and Tenaya Shull, KYLA 2014-15 at-large board member. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union
Kosciusko Youth Leadership Academy held its graduation dinner for its class of 2014. Keynote speaker was Indiana District 22 State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, who spoke about leadership. Pictured (L to R) are: Kubacki; Nolan Sponseller, KYLA 2013-14 at-large board member, Tippecanoe Valley High School; Tony Ciriello, KYLA moderator; Jacob Reynolds, KYLA 2014-15 at-large board member Warsaw Community High School; and Tenaya Shull, KYLA 2014-15 at-large board member. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union
Losing in the Republican primary Tuesday didn’t defeat Indiana District 22 State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki.
All day Wednesday she was in Indianapolis serving on the Riley Hospital for Children Board of Governors. She returned to Warsaw Wednesday evening to be the keynote speaker at the Kosciusko Youth Leadership Academy graduation dinner for the class of 2013-14.
As the purpose of KYLA is developing leadership skills in youth, Kubacki spoke on what it takes to be a leader.
“What makes a leader? Is leadership a quality you’re born with? Is it something you inherit such as Prince William or Prince Harry?” she asked. “We live in a country where anyone can be a leader. Leadership is not a smooth path. There will always be challenges that you will face. This past election is a perfect example. I lost a primary challenge. I could sulk and complain about what went wrong, or I could look at the situation and say what a wonderful thing I was able to do in the four years I was in the legislature.”
Kubacki said it was an honor for her even to be able to serve.
“And I look back thinking, ‘This is an opportunity that very few people have in life.’ And I appreciate so much to have that ability because that will open more doors. When a door closes, some other door opens. And that’s how we have to live our life. We’ll always have challenges. We decide how we want to deal with those challenges,” she stated.
Telling some of her own story, Kubacki told the KYLA cadets, “As I watched my own parents work the fields under the heat of the summer sun, I developed a great respect for the value of hard work. As one of seven children, parents with a grade school education, we could have easily become poster children for failure. In our family, failure was not an option. It was understood that it didn’t matter where you started out in life, it was what you do with your life that is important.”
She shared a little bit of her life growing up so those at the dinner could understand how wonderful life can be despite the challenges they may have, she explained.
She recalled being a little girl and seeing her parents pick cotton in Arkansas. Her father would have a long canvas bag strapped to his back, and her mother, who was very tiny, had one strapped to hers, too. Her dad would put her on the canvass bag, along with her sister, and they would fall asleep as the bags were filled with cotton. She said she knows the conversations her parents had were about their children having better lives than them.
“They expected their children to become leaders,” Kubacki said.
Another memory she shared was of her mother cleaning the migrant housing they had before she allowed her family to live there.
The third story she recalled was when her family was making a trip north from Florida. They stopped at a gas station and her father told the kids to wake up as it was Christmas.
“There was such profound sadness in my father’s voice that as a child I didn’t understand. It was Christmas, you’re supposed to be happy at Christmas. The older I got, the more I realized that profound sadness came from the fact that he was not doing what he needed to do so that his children could become leaders,” Kubacki said.
The gas station attendant saw all of the kids in the backseat of the car and he gave them a bag of treats for them to share.
“We didn’t have presents that year. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, but at that moment we were so happy because of the kindness of that man,” Kubacki said. “I share these stories not for sympathy, but because these experiences and more like that have made me the person I am today.  I have faced many challenges in my life, but each one of those challenges has given me such growth.”
She said leadership is standing up when you see an injustice. It’s extending a helping hand to someone who needs it.
Kubacki said she’s had many role models in her life who were leaders. Those leaders ranged from her mother to a farmer who provided her family with good housing. They included the gas station attendant who saw children without a Christmas and extended a helping hand, and her second-grade teacher who taught her to speak English.
“My point is that we can all become leaders when we stand up and speak against injustice and bigotry,” Kubacki said. “I have made it my mission to speak up against domestic violence, to speak up for children who have been abused. I became a leader when I decided to speak up on behalf of those who don’t have a voice.”
Everyone has the potential to become a leader, she said, and it doesn’t have to be in a grand fashion.
“Leadership builds on itself. People will see that you are the one that stands up for what is right, stands up for those that don’t have a leader,” she said.
She spoke about Ryan White. At an early age in Kokomo, White was diagnosed with severe hemophilia, a hereditary blood disorder. His treatment was weekly blood transfusions. In December 1984, he was diagnosed with AIDS. Very little was known about AIDS at that time and there was much fear in the community. White was not allowed to attend school or participate in sports. His family was threatened and a bullet was fired through his family’s living room window “out of fear because they didn’t know what AIDS was,” Kubacki said.
The Whites move to Cicero. There, Principal Tony Cook, Superintendent Bob Carnal and a handful of students who had been educated about AIDS were unafraid to shake White’s hand and welcomed him to his new school.
“They were true leaders,” Kubacki said. “They educated themselves on the issue and stood up against injustice. Ryan spoke about the discrimination he faced, and how educated people about the disease welcomed him to his new school. Ryan White died in 1990.”
She shared another story about a young girl, Malala Yousafzai, who she said is a leader. She suggested everyone read her book, “I Am Malala.”
When the Taliban took control of Swat Valley in Pakistan, Yousafzai spoke out and refused to be silenced and fought for the right for girls to have an education. On Oct. 9, 2012, when Yousafzai was 15, her school bus was stopped, she was sought out and shot in the head.
Though Yousafzai was expected to die, she did not. At 16 she has become a global symbol for peaceful protest, Kubacki said. She’s the youngest to ever receive a Nobel Peace Prize.
“We will all be challenged many times in our lives. It’s how we face these challenges – head on or we can run away. Malala chose not to run away. She became a leader,” Kubacki said. “Whenever we get into situations where you need to speak up, that’s where true leadership surfaces.”