The 10th Annual Polk Emerging Leaders Awards were held on August 19th. While the event itself was a little different this year following COVID protocols, it was nonetheless a night to celebrate and honor the work that young professionals are doing to improve Polk County.
The 2021 winners are: Lauren Jensen, Dr. Andy Oguntola, Brian Yates, Sara Beth Reynolds and Dr. Michelle Henne. We also honored Katie Worthington Decker with the Polk Emerging Leaders Visionary Award for all of her work to start these programs and give opportunities for the young professionals of Polk County to be recognized for their commitment to their communities. Read the rest of this post to see how these individuals are making an impact in their communities.
Lauren Jensen (Sessums Law Group P.A.) graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Kentucky in 2010 and later would receive her Juris Doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 2013. As a family law attorney and a mother of three, she has learned the many facets of true leadership and lives it out daily.
It’s through her time with local organizations and local leaders that she has had the chance to learn what it takes to be a leader. Because of their influence and her dedication, she has risen in the ranks and is now serving as the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Explorations V Children’s Museum and has been actively involved as they have launched their new brand, Florida Children’s Museum and built their new location at Bonnet Springs Park. She has also served as Community Vice President of the Junior League of Great Lakeland.
During the pandemic, she had to step up to the plate to ensure that the organizations she serves, were able to continue to serve Lakeland. She acted as the liaison between the Junior League and the Adopt a School initiative to house PPE supplies for schools at her home, while securing volunteer League members to facilitate distribution of the supplies to schools. In her service to Explorations V Children’s Museum, she assisted in making decisions about their finances, as the doors of the facility were closed to the public. Now, as Florida Childrens Museum prepares to move to their new location to Bonnet Springs Park, she will be leading the charge on their membership initiatives for the new facility.
When she isn’t volunteering her time and talents to organizations like United Way of Central Florida, Florida Bar Family Law Section and Lake Morton Community Church, you can find her taking a run with her kids, practicing yoga and serving those who are underprivileged at Lighthouse Ministries or the George Harris Youth Shelter.
Dr. Andy Oguntola
Dr. Andy Oguntola (Polk State College) graduated from Webber International University with his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and his Masters of Business Administration. He then went on to Nova Southeastern University where he received his Doctorate degree in Higher Educational Leadership in 2019. Currently, he is the Director of Polk Sate College’s JD Alexander Center, where he works to develop relationships with community leaders and educational institutions. While his position encompasses a variety of duties, he coordinates services for students with disabilities and provides programming that meets the needs of faculty, staff, students and business partners.
One of the most satisfying moments of his career was when he stepped up to make an impact in education for Lake Wales students. Year after year, students would inform him that they were unable to go to college due to their family members being unfamiliar with the college admissions process. He heard a problem and did the work to find a solution. In 2015, he created a strategic plan to create a high school college fair for Lake Wales. He created a plan, presented it to the Superintendent of the Lake Wales Charter Schools and, while everyone loved the idea, they were unsure it could be accomplished. After three months of this recipient making calls, meeting with educators and putting in the work, he saw this plan come to fruition. Today, the Lake Wales College Fair is one of the largest fairs in the State with over 1,000 attendees and 40 colleges participating. This fair has been so successful that is has actually helped increase the college admissions rate. It also received a proclamation from the City of Lake Wales for its impactful results in supporting a city need.
His ability to serve doesn’t take a break, regardless of if he is on the clock or not. His hobbies include, well, serving others! He got together with some friends of his to create a brand-new youth football and cheer league so that the youth in Lake Wales have a positive outlet after school. As of right now, there are over 350 young men and women signed up to play youth sports this year. They have also gathered 20 other individuals to help raise funds for new uniforms, scholarships and even opportunities for tutoring and feeding the kids after practice.
This past year he was the Chairman of the Lake Wales Citizens and Police Community Relations Advisory Committee in which they tackled challenging issues such as an officer involved incident and body cameras, is Chairman of the Lake Wales Chamber and Economic Development Council and is Chairman of the Lake Wales Charter School system.
Brian Yates (Citizens Bank & Trust) graduated from the Florida School of Banking at the University of Florida and currently works for a local bank who has built a culture upon improving the areas they serve through community engagement. In his role at the bank, he does his best to inspire his team to collaborate and always reach for more.
In 2020, many small businesses were looking to banks for help in their time of crisis. Even though he had just recently joined their team, Citizens Bank & Trust tapped tonight’s recipient to lead the Paycheck Protection Program division who stood up to quickly help the small business of Polk County. If you can imagine, there was a lot of red-tape and rules that were always changing, but Brian took charge, lead and collaborated with his team and saw amazing results. They issued 1,115 loans for a total of over $118 million dollars across Polk County. Small businesses were able to keep their doors open because of the aide that the bank provided. 22,000 people got to keep their jobs!
He serves as a City Commissioner for Winter Haven and in this role he uses his leadership skills to make decisions that are in the best interest of the citizens of the City he loves. Bonnie Parker, Director of Wealth Management at the bank expressed, “As a resident of this community, I have been very pleased with the way he has handled some difficult situations. From policies on wearing masks, to making hard decisions on budget matters, he uses a calm temperament and thoughtful approach to helping move our city forward during what has most likely been one of the most trying times in our history.”
His involvement in Winter Haven doesn’t stop with him service to the commission. This recipient is also actively engaged with Main Street Winter Haven, The Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, the Florence Villa CRA Advisory Team, the Ritz Theatre and the Winter Haven Rotary Club, all well before his role as commissioner. He is also a graduate of Leadership Winter Haven Class 35 and was tapped to Chair Class 38.
Sara Beth Reynolds
Sara Beth Reynolds (Theatre Winter Haven) graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in Telecommunications, Media & Society. She is currently pursuing a Dual Masters of Public Administration & Nonprofit Management from the University of Central Florida. It’s no surprise that she is furthering her education. Education is one of her passions.
She is the Development Director for Theatre Winter Haven, where she oversees grant applications, donor funding and creates new and innovative programs. In this role, she was able to procure over $1.2 million in funds to help the theatre through the challenges of 2020 and 2021 and continue to provide the high standard programming and classes to the community. Programs like the Theatre of Winter Haven’s internship program, DramaTime LIVE! Reading program, summer Master Classes and their Performing Arts Academy scholarship programs. She also has had the opportunity to speak at the Great American Teach In, mentor through Polk Vision and the Winter Haven Public Education Partnership.
Sara Beth ran for Polk County school board and won at the age of 24. In this role she aids the district in overseeing what has grown to 109,000 students and 13,000 employees. It’s in this role that she has been able to make a great impact on the lives of students in Polk County.
One of the most satisfying moments of her career was with a student from Winter Haven high School. He reached out to inform her that he had been accepted into Harvard. She first met him in his Junior year, but ended up appointing him as the District 4 Representative and was the only student of Polk County Public Schools COVID-19 Reopening Task Force. Even though he was sitting in a room with educational leaders with impressive resumes, he spoke up and advocated for what he believed would keep students safe during the pandemic. She was so proud to see that, because of his confidence, he was able to secure ultimate approval of the district-wide masks requirement. It ultimately solidified her thoughts about the importance of giving students the power to speak up and speak into issues and challenges.
Dr. Michelle Henne
Dr. Michelle Henne (Releve Sports Medicine) graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor of Science. She also attended the University of South Florida College of Medicine where she received her Doctor of Medicine. During her time at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, she served as the student leader for the scholarly concentration in Internal Medicine, a Panel Leader at the Florida Bioethics Student Planning Meeting and was a Bareness/Behnke Chapter Member of the Hold Humanism Honor Society. In the years to follow, she would complete her Residency at Bayfront Health Family Medicine Residency Program and her Fellowship with the Orlando Health Sports Medicine Fellowship. Today, she serves as the founder, owner and medical director for her own sports medicine facility, Releve Sports Medicine.
In 2018, her company obtained the status to provide continuing education to athletic trainers and opted to do it completely free of charge. 2020 was a year where many athletic trainers were furloughed or without work, so she offered these educational meetings virtually, which gave them the opportunity to expand the variety of attendees and speakers. They have had over 2,000 athletic trainers attend these virtual webinars. She was also able to encourage continuing education through her participation as a speaker at the annual conference for the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. It was there that she shared more about the impact of COVID on sports medicine.
She is involved in the Polk County Medical Association, the Central Florida Physician Alliance, Junior League of Winter Haven, Light Up the Night 5K, Leadership Winter Haven and Leadership Polk. Uniquely, she is also carrying on the county’s legacy as the Water Ski Capitol of the World on the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team. Even though she isn’t a Winter Haven native, she felt it was a great way for her to be a part of something unique that her community is known for.
Many medical practices had to shut their doors due to COVID. But her practice has actually grown, doubling in size since May 2020. She has also had the amazing opportunity to be assigned to cover UFC and boxing events on ESPN and Telemundo as a certified ringside physician.
Katie Worthington Decker - Special Polk Emerging Leaders Visionary Award
Every year, we give 5 awards to 5 recipients. But for the 10th year of these awards, the Polk Emerging Leaders Awards committee wanted to do something special for one of the people who started it all, Katie Worthington Decker.
It's because of her influence and vision that we celebrate 10 years of breaking down community lines. 10 years of EMERGE, ENDEAVOR, and ENGAGE working together to promote the young professionals of our community. In these 10 years we have had the opportunity to bestow the title of Emerging Leader to over 50 Young Professionals from throughout Polk County while recognizing the work of hundreds of others.
None of this would have been possible without her inspiration, leadership and dedication. Katie strongly believes in the power of our community's young professionals. She believes that young professionals are unselfishly making a difference in our community every day and she, along with her Chamber predecessor Bob Gernert and mentor Bonnie Parker, wanted to create an outlet to recognize those accomplishments. Born through this was the Polk Emerging Leaders Awards.
Katie is an avid UCF fan, a champion for businesses and an advocate for her community. She is a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend and an admired business leader. As the President & CEO of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, she continues to push Winter Haven and Polk County forward through advocacy, business development, collaboration and so much more.