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Making FFA lemonade from virtual lemons

Slideshow: Can’t go to Indy? No problem! Here’s how one southern Illinois FFA chapter rallied its community and made the best of this year’s virtual National FFA Convention.

In a season that’s created a lot of lemons for young people, one community in southern Illinois sought to do the opposite last week.

When the National FFA Convention went virtual, young people all over the country mourned the chance to gather in Indianapolis. And while a lot of Illinois chapters scheduled watch parties for the Oct. 27-29 virtual convention, Edwards County High School FFA Advisor Michelle Wiseman decided to create a supersize three-day watch party — and make the very best of it.

Wiseman contacted Edwards County Farm Bureau Manager Rebecca Perry, and before long, they had a plan: a watch party at the Farm Bureau building, meals sponsored by local businesses, a community service project, two local business tours, visits from two legislators, virtual meets with industry professionals and a points competition for participation. Best of all, the kids got to spend time together, have fun and learn some stuff.

“In our school, FFA is leading the way in pushing forward and getting kids involved, especially after school,” Wiseman says. “Idle hands are not a good thing!”

So for three days, Wiseman gathered her students at the Farm Bureau building for a 12-hour watch party that started at 8:30 a.m. They watched sessions from air mattresses, futons, bean bag chairs and more, to make it feel like home. They had snacks and activities — think carving pumpkins and games.

During a regular convention year, the students would tour a couple of Indy-based businesses, so instead, Wiseman set up tours at two local businesses in Albion: Country Home Processing and The Watering Can. At Country Home Processing, they saw where animals come in at the back and the kill floor, and learned about processing and dealing with customers. At The Watering Can, a flower shop, they got to see the flower cooler and the back room where the flower magic happens. Both business owners talked about supply chain interruptions due to COVID-19.

National FFA encouraged chapters to do a service project, so the Edwards County High School FFA members made fall door decorations for the local nursing home, and then walked over and delivered them, waving to residents through the windows.

“We thought it might brighten their day to see some color and know we’re thinking of them,” Wiseman says.

The chapter also hosted two legislative speakers, Adam Niemerg and Darren Bailey, to help the kids get more engaged with the political process.

Bringing the fun

And what’s an FFA convention without a little friendly competition? Because they were saving so much money on hotels, food and transportation, Wiseman collected prizes, awarding points for each activity the kids participated in, like virtual college visits, workshops, asking questions on field trips and more. Whoever had the most points got first pick of gift cards and various goofy prizes.

And on the final day, the students got decked out in official dress for some prestigious awards, including their National Chapter Award (for the second year in a row), and member Mackenzie Dascotte’s American FFA Degree. They also got to dial in and be on camera as a Top 10 Finalist for Strengthening Agriculture — one of three Illinois chapters to make the top 10 for that award. They earned the designation for an event last winter, working with Farm Bureau to promote the dairy industry at a high school basketball game.

In the end, Wiseman says she’s grateful for the community effort on behalf of their kids, especially from Farm Bureau, but also from an administration that let them gather in person, in masks. “There’s a lot of community support for FFA here in Albion,” she says. “They say yes and ask, ‘What else do you need?’”

And while her kids lobbied to make it an overnight event (“I wasn’t up for a three-day lock-in!”), they declared the marathon watch party even more fun than Indy, mostly because they were hanging out more together. That might be the definition of lemonade from lemons.

“If we’re going to do it virtually, I’d rather make it enjoyable,” Wiseman says. “Who wants to do something that’s not fun? I don’t!”


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