The national FFA convention is a pinnacle event for many FFA members. Some prepare all year for the agriscience fair, career development events, or the opportunity to share their talent in the band or chorus. Whether they participate through the competitions or just by attending, many FFA members must work hard for the opportunity to come to Indianapolis.
Regardless of their reason to attend national convention, most students are excited to spend a few days away from their normal routine at school. So how can you, as an advisor, channel this excitement back to the classroom and ensure that the time away is a learning experience and not just an extended fall break?
Even for the students who aren’t developing their leadership skills as a competitor, delegate or performer, convention holds tangible opportunities to develop leadership skills and send students home with much more than a few days away from school. Members can learn about similarities and differences in the agriculture of their own state and other states, write an essay about how a motivational speaker will influence their leadership style, or apply etiquette in a downtown restaurant.
In the last three years, another opportunity has been developed for students to develop and apply their leadership skills. The National Days of Service consists of three days of community service activities, hosted by organizations in need in the greater Indianapolis area. “It’s a real lab where kids can develop an attitude of service and leadership for themselves,” said Jeff Adams, Lakota FFA Advisor in Ohio. He and his students have participated in the event all three years.
“It’s a significant part of their convention experience,” said Adams. During their first year, he and his students packed boxes at the Gleaner’s Food Bank. Adams said one student in particular was critical of people who would need such assistance, but after serving with other members for an afternoon and learning that the boxes were for elderly people in 29 Indiana counties, his perspective had changed to recognize a genuine need for charity.
In fact, Adams said his students are often the first to respond to needs at home. When their local Farm Bureau organized a group to harvest cabbage for a statewide food bank, his FFA members made up the most significant portion of the group, harvesting 21,000 pounds of cabbage on a rainy Friday. “My students jump at opportunities like this more than they ever have before,” he said.
Adams said the National Days of Service provides an opportunity for leadership development and supports the organization’s commitment to community service in an unprecedented way. “I’m just shocked that we didn’t start this 30 years ago,” he said.
In its third year, the 2008 National Days of Service coordinated 1,139 FFA members to take part in service activities at 10 sites in the Indianapolis metro area. Volunteer work provided by the FFA members was valued at more than $91,000 in actual savings to the host sites, which included Habitat for Humanity, Agape Therapeutic Riding and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among others.
“The value is huge, not only in terms of personal giving back to the community, but the sense of leadership it creates in the students and their sense of self-worth, self-esteem,” said Damon Spight, national FFA program manager for the National Days of Service. “They leave Indianapolis with educational pieces and experiences that empower them to develop similar programs and integrate new ideas in something pre-existing.”
Spight said students can also strengthen their skills as they work alongside experts in the Indianapolis area, like home builders or master gardeners. It’s a sustainable model that students can repeat in their local communities, encouraging youth and adults to work together in the community.
It’s also leadership in action. Community members notice the desire to serve demonstrated by FFA members, as well. It’s why organizations like Toyota are willing to play a role in sponsoring the event each year.
“The impression left by our students is very memorable,” Spight said. “The resounding compliment is that students would not want to stop – they wanted to work through lunch to make sure their tasks were totally completed.”
Service opportunities range from landscaping and planting trees to mending fences and packing food boxes. Regardless of where students serve, the opportunity creates a one-of-a-kind leadership experience during the national FFA convention. Adams said that’s one of the best parts of the event; students with diverse strengths and skills are placed in a site that will suit some perfectly and challenge others to stretch.
“They actually give back to the community and complete an out of state experience,” Spight said. “They leave themselves rather than just taking away.”
The National Quality Program Standards for Secondary Agricultural Education says that one indication of a quality program is when students participate in FFA leadership and personal development activities/events above the local level. Whether you provide activities to follow up with each convention experience or participate in the National Days of Service, convention can be a time to create a unique leadership development opportunity for your students, school and community.