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Kat Perkins, others help young professionals ‘Embrace the Spotlight’ at summit in Grand Forks

When former head basketball coach Jim Johnson tries to inspire groups, like the one at the Great Plains Young Professionals Summit in Grand Forks, he tells them about Jason McElwain, a boy diagnosed with autism who tried out for his team three years in a row.

McElwain, Johnson's team manager for Greece Athena High School in Rochester, N.Y., had a big dream to play basketball. That dream came true Feb. 15, 2006, when Johnson, a basketball coach of 35 years, called the young man to the court. J-Mac, as the world knows McElwain, scored 20 points in four minutes and helped the Trojans to a 79-43 victory.

McElwain's story gained national attention, but it changed Johnson's view on the world, a message he will pass on Friday at the Alerus Center.

"I learned so much from him on how you should treat people, how to be a more effective leader," Johnson said. "What I learned from him is everybody deserves chance."

Johnson is part of an array of speakers who will address more than 200 summit attendees this week. Dubbed "Embrace the Spotlight," the summit returned to Grand Forks for the second time since 2014.

Keynote speakers included Johnson, Matt Booth of Dubuque, Iowa, Ryan Taylor of Towner, N.D., a rancher and Democratic politician who campaigned to be North Dakota's governor in 2012, and Kat Perkins, a semifinalist on "The Voice" from Scranton, N.D. The singer whose career has reached national audiences said it takes a lot of bravery and fearlessness to pursue dreams, but those who do can be successful, whether they are from a large city or a small town in North Dakota.

"That's part of my speech, where I tell them about my little town," she said. "The whole point of me explaining that rural upbringing is to show them you can break out from that.

"As long as you work hard and you love what you do ... anybody can succeed."

The speakers have not disappointed in inspiring the summit's attendees, said Corey Mock, executive director of Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals, the group hosting the three-day event.

"I am just so moved by their willingness to help others and the message they bring," he said. "I couldn't have asked for a better program."

Attendees have come from across the state, including Bismarck, Minot, Grand Forks and Fargo. Despite taking a break in 2016, Mock felt this year's conference was a success with attendance on par with the previous six summits.

Johnson said he hopes his speech will inspire attendees to not only to pursue their dreams but to help others do the same.

"It's all in us, sometimes it's just hidden," he said.