Columbus Young Professionals NextGen Leader of the Year accepted his award by paying tribute to a previous generation of his family.

Josh Burnett, honored in the “life” category of the NextGen program, received the Leader of the Year Award at a luncheon Tuesday at The Commons, surrounded by fellow nominees, his co-workers at The Ridge church and family.

Burnett, communications director at The Ridge, is best known in the Columbus community as the creator of Celebrate Columbus, a social media platform highlighting positive things happening in the city, which he started after moving back to the community in 2015.

In his acceptance speech, Burnett paid tribute to his grandparents, Robert and Ruth Ann Burnett, who moved to Columbus in the 1960s and worked as teachers in addition to being active in the community.

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He credited them with inspiring him to love the Columbus community as much as they did and to be committed to giving back. Ruth Ann Burnett, who taught at McKinley, Jefferson and Schmitt schools, was named The Republic’s 1991 Woman of the year. Robert Burnett, who taught at Columbus High School and Columbus East High School, has a tennis court named after him at Donner Park.

“I feel like Columbus doesn’t mean Burnett, but Burnett means Columbus,” he said while being congratulated by many of the nearly 250 people who attended the luncheon. “My parents instilled in us a love of Columbus,” he said.

Burnett was one of 15 nominees featured throughout 2016 in a joint project between the Columbus Young Professionals, the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and The Republic. Profiles of each of the nominees, all between the ages of 25 and 34, were featured in the newspaper once a month, honored in the areas of work, life and community.

Three nominees were announced in early 2016 as examples of the young professionals the group planned to honor throughout the year for contributions to work, life and community in Columbus — Dr. Brandon Gumbiner, Columbus City Councilwoman Elaine Wagner, and Bartholomew County Public Library’s Curtis Hartwell. They were introduced Tuesday by Kyle Hendricks, president of the Columbus Young Professionals.

Community leaders introduced the nominees in each category — Aida Ramirez, executive director of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, the work nominees; Rick Weinheimer, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., the life nominees; and Bartholomew Circuit Judge Kelly Benjamin the community nominees.

Cindy Frey, chamber president, opened the ceremonies by recognizing the work of the young professionals group to put together a year-long recognition project and their efforts to help other young professionals in the community acclimate to Columbus and make the most of their time here.

“Our community will not thrive if we don’t attract, develop and retain young talent,” Frey told the audience.

The focus on ages 25 to 34 reflects a new initiative by the chamber, the Columbus Area Visitors Center and the city to recognize that the individuals in this age group have completed their schooling, but haven’t put down roots yet. And the Columbus community hopes to attract more young professionals who will relocate here for the city’s growing job base, the ability to increase their earnings, the pleasant climate and surroundings and the open and welcoming community, she said.

Because Columbus is a smaller city, young professionals find it’s easier to find and make connections, Frey said.

“This is a place where you can meet the mayor, or your city councilman … or councilwoman,” she said. “This is a place where community leaders want to hear your opinions.”

Hendricks told the group that the NextGen project exhibited an awareness that Columbus is different as a community.

“I grew up in Columbus and what separates us are our people and the commitment we have to each other and the space we share,” he said.

Each of the nominees was featured in a video presentation talking about their work in the community, what motivates them to give back to the community and who inspires them.

When introducing the “life” nominees, Weinheimer joked he thought about starting with a song lyric but his knowledge of Kanye West was limited, so he would stick with John Lennon and his quote: “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”

“People with a sense of purpose — a calling — they make it a plan every day,” he said. “A word of warning: You won’t be a young professional forever.”

Weinheimer asked them to think about what kind of legacy they wanted to leave behind and begin working on it now, because later might mean the legacy is already completed.

Ramirez talked about bringing individual core values of community to the workplace, placing a higher value on working together rather than going it alone.

And Benjamin encouraged the young professionals to take a look around the community where they might be able to help out, opening their minds to bring new ways to solve problems and approach issues. She challenged the young professions to take their talent, ideas and dreams and put them to work outside the workplace to benefit the community.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, who presented the Leader of the Year award to Burnett, said he had spent the first year of his administration listening to community residents, and had engaged with the Columbus Young Professionals to learn more about their views.

The purpose was to help the city create the community that young professionals want to live in, the mayor said.

The Young Professionals group had asked its own nominees who they thought would win the overall leadership award, and the mayor went to the video to reveal the answers — which were unanimously Josh Burnett.

After expressing his thanks to those who had voted for him to receive the award, to his family and friends and to the Young Professionals Group, Burnett confided that his return to Columbus in 2015 was based on the need to help his wife Katie recover from severe health problems relating to Crohn’s disease with the support of his extended family.

Saying his work with Celebrate Columbus started after returning to Columbus and praying an angry prayer to God along the lines of “What the heck do you want me to do now,” he was told in his heart to “celebrate” despite his wife’s health problems and the ongoing uncertainty about the future.

At that moment, he said he decided to celebrate every good thing that God had done in his life and to find something to celebrate every day.

Burnett closed with a quote from J. Irwin Miller, the industrialist who turned Columbus into a mecca of modern architecture, saying, “The most important service to others is service to those who are not like yourself.”

Adam Johnson, who is Connections pastor at The Ridge, and Burnett’s supervisor there, said what the audience saw in the acceptance speech is just the way Burnett is in his everyday life.

“He’s the most authentic person I’ve every met,” Johnson said. “And he shares that with everyone he knows — and what better way to do that than new technology,” he said, referring to the Celebrate Columbus social media effort. “There’s no angle with Josh, he loves his community, he loves his church, and he loves his family.”

NextGen honorees

Nominees for NextGen Leader of the Year were:

Dr. Brandon Gumbiner, Indiana Podiatry Group

Curtis Hartwell, Bartholomew County Public Library

Elaine Wagner, Cummins, Inc.

Amber Porter, Strand Associates, Inc.

Joshua Sefchek, Toyota Material Handling USA

Dr. Mandy Wyant, Family Chiropractic and Wellness

Mark Schneider, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

Cassandra Kuczmanski, Cummins, Inc.

Roy Ice, Kemper CPA Group

Joel Philippsen, Columbus Regional Health

Eric Robbins, Edward Jones

Danielle Nickerson, National Youth Advocate Program

Josh Burnett, The Ridge

Leslie Martinez, Trine University

Tyshaun Allen, Taylor Bros. Construction

About the winner

Name: Josh Burnett

Age: 28

City of residence: Columbus

Family: Wife, Katie; two sons, Will and Ryan

Education: Columbus East High School and Cincinnati Christian University with a Bachelor of Science in biblical studies.

Your job: Communications director at The Ridge. I lead our social media presence, email marketing and our promotional calendar. I also own Burnett Collective, a social media marketing company committed to helping people grow their social influence.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at or (812) 379-5631.