Laila Jones celebrates her acceptance into the Florida Youth Leadership Forum with her mom, Nada Khalaf-Jones, Sue Woltanski, school board member and Coral Shores High School staff. CONTRIBUTED

Starting in early July, Coral Shores student Laila Jones will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent youth with special needs at the Florida Youth Leadership Forum. 

Currently a sophomore, Jones will be provided a unique experience learning leadership skills and exploring career paths in a five-day leadership training program based at Florida State University in Tallahassee. 

Jones, who has Down syndrome, has been actively involved in her school and community throughout middle school and high school. She is the captain of a local Special Olympics soccer team that recently participated in a state game at ESPN Stadium in Orlando. She acted in Coral Shores’ drama club’s recent performance of “Into the Woods.” She’s also held a job at Publix for two years. 

“When she was asked about her most memorable experience as a disabled person she replied ‘I am not disabled,’” said Laila’s mother, Nada Khalaf-Jones, expressing pride at her daughter’s accomplishments. 

Applicants to the Youth Leadership Forum were chosen based on the merit of their applications. As the first Coral Shores student to be chosen for the program, Jones is uniquely qualified to represent the Upper Keys. 

“​​I picked her to be the nominee because she exhibits and demonstrates leadership qualities in and outside the classroom,” said Katherine Ets-Hokin, Laila’s core subject teacher. “She is a pleasure to teach. I know she will represent our school, district and community well.”

The program promises delegates a chance to learn about law making and advocacy, and to develop their leadership skills by creating “Personal Leadership Plans.” Delegates will also take field trips to learn about different job and career paths. 

“Laila is excited about being an adult,” said Nada Khalaf-Jones. “It’s time to spread her wings. This gives her an idea of how that could feel.” 

Jones is both excited and nervous for what the event will provide. When asked about what the opportunity of the forum means to her, Laila said, “It means stopping fights before they happen and getting between people in conflict situations.” The four-day event begins July 9.