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Young people give Learners to Leaders high marks

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 05/06/2010 9:25 AM

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SPENCER, Iowa —Graduates of the Northwest Iowa FFA Learners to Leaders Program shared what they accomplished from participating in the two-year program during the group's recent graduation ceremony in Spencer. The program was sponsored by Smithfield Foods and Murphy Brown.

Dillon Thiner, a member of Graettinger-Terrill FFA, said he loved the opportunities to travel to the Washington Leadership Conference and the national and state FFA conventions. The public speaking skills and self-confidence gained from the program gave him the courage to apply to be a page during this year's legislative session. He was picked to be Gov. Chet Culver's page.

"It was a tremendous experience," said Thiner, who emceed the graduation ceremony. "Before I was in Learners to Leaders, I was really shy. Now I can talk to people without being nervous."

Thiner will attend Simpson College where he will major in political science and international relations, and then attend law school.

Kaitlin Michelson, a Sibley-Ocheyedan FFA member, said her chapter has developed Hawkeye Point, the state's highest natural elevation, as a tourist destination for a community service project. The FFA chapter encouraged the county to purchase the farm, and they helped convert the house to the county Extension office. Now they are building a campground.

"Learners to Leaders is a great program because we were given so many opportunities through traveling, classes, leadership skills development and the opportunity to volunteer," said Michelson. "I've learned not to let anything pass me by, to take every opportunity given to me."

She will attend Iowa State University to become a large animal veterinarian.

Phil Schmitt, a senior at Graettinger-Terrill, joined the program after someone else dropped out.

"I enjoyed it a lot," Schmitt said. "I got to meet different people and learned about being a leader. Now I can go up to a complete stranger, introduce myself and strike up a conversation."

Schmitt shared how he designed and built a sheep chariot for a fifth grader who is confined to a wheel chair due to cerebral palsy. The cart attaches to the wheel chair so the boy can show sheep.

"It gave him another opportunity to get involved in 4-H," Schmitt said. "He got overall grand champion at the Emmet County Fair last summer. Community service will always be a very important part of my life."

Schmitt will attend Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg to study agriculture and then return to his family's farm.

Lindsey Kestner and the other Learners to Leaders participants from Sioux Central FFA received $500 through the program, which they donated to four community organizations at Christmas — Adopt a Family, the library, the fire department and Lutheran Services of Iowa.

"It was a great opportunity to experience being able to help our community," Kestner said. "It was so rewarding to see the look on their faces when they received the donation."

She will study nursing at Kirkwood Community College.

Ian McCleish, a member of the North Kossuth-Sentral FFA, shared how he wrote an application for a $100,000 grant to build a greenhouse at his school. Once they received the grant, he helped build it.

"We started with five pages of instructions and a garage of parts," he said. "It was quite a learning experience, and it was quite fun."

McCleish said he learned many things from finances to farming to public speaking by being involved in Learners to Leaders. He will attend Iowa Lakes Community College and study diesel mechanics.

"I loved everything about this program from the way it helped me develop myself as a leader to the way we learned about agriculture all over the country," said Brandon Laidig of Graettinger-Terrill FFA. "We learned table etiquette and how to dress and things we need to be successful as an individual in today's world."

Laidig plans to major in mechanical engineering at the University of Iowa.