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Elevate Work graduates 50th class

On Wednesday, May 22, Elevate Branson celebrated the graduation of Class No. 50 from the Elevate Work program. Every class has been special, of course, but this milestone called for a special occasion, with families and friends packing the auditorium to share the excitement and several graduates from previous classes sharing their testimonies as part of the program.


“There aren’t many places where you can walk in as a menace to society and leave with the tools to become a pillar of the community,” said Carla Perry, a graduate of Class No. 16, who now leads a local nonprofit, the Charis Group, which helps connect people with the resources they need to break free from destructive cycles.


Instructor Doug Lay gave an overview of the program, which was adapted from the Jobs for Life work training program to fit the particular challenges and needs of the Branson area. “The criteria for this class are not easy,” he reminded the audience. Students are expected to attend every class, twice weekly for nine weeks, along with homework assignments to be completed. As part of the class, students hear area professionals and business leaders share in a panel discussion about their own journeys to success and leadership; they also prepare a 60-second “elevator pitch” introduction of themselves and their goals, prepare a resumé, and participate in mock interviews.  


Elevate Work has graduated 325 students over 12 seasons, with over 85% still working and continuing on the plan they developed in class. Even those who may not graduate due to illness or other challenges make serious strides forward, some returning later to complete the program. The volunteer mentors assigned to each student are a huge part of the success, attending class alongside the students and encouraging them as they work through the requirements.


“I needed confidence,” shared Class No. 6 graduate Darrel Claspill. “I still work hard and fight every day, but I don’t quit.”


“This class is so much more than resumés and interviews,” said Class No. 45 grad Theresa Hayes. “It’s a journey of self-discovery.” Hayes and others also said they loved studying the Bible characters that serve as inspiration for the skills learned in the class.


Doug Lay and program director Donna McConkey presented certificates and graduation packets to the following graduates, each of whom shared briefly along with their mentors:


·       Courtney Woods 

·       Rae Henderson

·       Caraleena Henderson 

·       Jeff Hunt

·       Lisa Penn


Mother and daughter Rae and Caraleena Henderson, along with grandchild Zelle, earned their certificates in Class No. 49, but missed graduation due to an automobile accident. They received rousing applause for being the first three-generation graduates, including Zella’s participation in the Elevate Kids program, directed by Cathy Brown alongside each class of Elevate Work.


Following presentation of certificates, more previous graduates shared their stories. Frank Valdez credited the persistence of Elevate volunteers who kept knocking on his door at an extended-stay motel until he decided to check out the program. He became a popular leader in the Elevate kitchen staff and also met his wife, Lydia, who worked in the thrift shop; he has now moved into management at a local restaurant chain.


Brian Reed of Class No. 36, Trent Berhow of Class No. 32, and Ian Carroll of Class No. 22 also shared their stories. “Bobby made me come to church,” shared Carroll about his mentor, “and I learned I didn’t know everything.” Berhow shared that his mentor helped him so much, he later decided to become a mentor himself; he has also been a panel member and serves on the Elevate board. Reed thanked Doug Lay for helping him discover that he liked teaching, actually letting him help lead a class session.


Along with the graduates, regular mentors Winona and Gayle shared the joy they have found in mentoring; both encouraged other people to volunteer.


Featured speaker for the evening was Ashley Harkness, hired as the first Elevate Branson employee in 2013 to help develop the Elevate Work program. She served until 2020, and now helps her husband, Bobby, whom she met when he served as a mentor, with his construction business. Ashley is an active member of the Hollister Area Chamber of Commerce while continuing to be a big supporter of Elevate Branson.


Harkness shared some of the ups and downs of developing the program, including one class when nobody came. When that happened, Elevate founder Bryan Stallings encouraged her to “fail forward” by learning from the experience, and she passed that advice on to the graduates. “Remember, it doesn’t stop tonight,” she told the students.


Before closing prayer by Stallings, followed by refreshments including Pink Zebra cupcakes, Donna McConkey took the podium to thank the many staff, volunteers and community supporters involved in Elevate Work. Plans are underway for Class No. 51 which will start in the fall; visit for more information about enrolling in the class or serving as a business panel member or mentor.

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