The organization is called Georgia Forward. The program is called Young Gamechangers.
And forward and change aptly describe Nicole de Vries -- professionally and personally.
She dropped out of Hardaway High School with a case of "senioritis," but she earned a diploma from Hallie Turner Private School in 1999 and obtained a bachelor's degree in information systems management in 2007 and a master's of business administration in 2009 from Columbus State, where she was president of the student government association.
Now, she works for her alma mater as CSU's academic data manager.
She declined to detail what derailed her, but she is grateful to get back on track.
"It's so easy being on one side of the tracks or the other, such a fine line between key points in my life," said de Vries, 31. "I could easily be a non-functioning member of society. It took me getting around the right people."
In addition to Hallie Turner and CSU, de Vries sure found the right people in Young Gamechangers. She is one of 25 Georgians ages 20-40 Georgia Forward selected from about 50 applicants for the inaugural program, which gathered the participants' diverse experience and talents to focus on improving one community: Americus/Sumter County.
Amir Farokhi, executive director of Georgia Forward, a non-partisan organization trying to improve the state, said de Vries' enthusiasm and background make her a good fit for Young Gamechangers.
"We didn't really have someone from an academic or university setting who wasn't in a professorial role," he said. "We have lawyers and foundation folks and artists but not someone like Nicole. She also brought a good west Georgia perspective. Columbus has done really remarkable things downtown and on the riverfront, and that's a lesson to be learned."
Georgia Forward chose Americus/Sumter County to benefit from the Young Gamechangers' work because it has strong assets -- such as Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, Georgia Southwestern University and South Georgia Technical College -- but perhaps doesn't leverage them as well as possible, Farokhi said. Plus, community leaders welcomed the program's involvement and were open to suggestions, he said.
For about five months, the Young Gamechangers analyzed and envisioned. They presented their proposals April 26 in Americus' historic Rylander Theatre. De Vries' group worked on determining the region's story and how to market it. As the "data nut," she designed a survey and interpreted the results.
Her group developed two recommendations:
Market the Americus/Sumter County area as a small town with big ideas. "For a relatively rural population," she said, "they have a lot going on as far as servant leadership and innovation."
Market the area as a hub that trains medical personnel and draws patients from throughout the region.
"It's so good to see something through to completion," de Vries said. "I wouldn't say it's a weight off my shoulders, but it's that epiphany feeling. The rays break out, and you feel warm basking in the sun."
She realized she has what it takes to compete and contribute on an elite level.
"You can't adjust your winds, but you can adjust your sails," she said. "So, to me, this was affirming my skills."
De Vries estimated she donated about 60 hours of work to the project.
"I'm very thankful Columbus State allowed me to take the time and saw the value in this," she said.
It was a no-brainer for CSU officials Tom Hackett and Barbara Buckner to recommend her for the program.
Hackett, CSU's provost and vice president for academic affairs, said de Vries' positive impact on the university goes beyond her job description.
"Certainly in the area of technology and data analysis," he said, "she's really exceptionally gifted in understanding how using data can improve the performance of your organization."
Buckner, dean of CSU's College of Education and Health Professions, is impressed with de Vries' passion for participating in a greater good.
"She has learned how what happens in the state affects the Columbus area and how Columbus fits in the broader picture," Buckner said.
Moreover, de Vries doesn't let divisions stop her from communicating, Hackett said.
"Universities everywhere are notorious for being bureaucratic," the provost said. "Nicole gets that work across silos and breaks down barriers."
And she didn't let the barrier of dropping out of high school prevent her success.
"She is a game-changer in her own right because she believed in herself," Buckner said. "She believed she wasn't a failure and that she could make it."HOW TO APPLY
The application period to be among the next group of Young Gamechangers is expected to start in September. Click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com/living for a link to the website and more information about the program.