“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Proverbs 16:9
Perhaps no other verse is more fitting for one former softball player turned future agriculture teacher. Growing up in Rockingham County, Virginia, the most abundant ag county in the state, it might seem natural for a young person to be involved in 4-H or FFA, especially if she was growing up on her family’s farm.
Kendall Knicely had other plans that included eventually going to college on a softball scholarship. Her family’s legacy was also rooted in athletics. Her great uncle made it to the major league, and his jersey hung in her high school gym. Knicely was the pitcher for her competitive team until one tournament, when her health took a turn for the worse.
“Back in 2011, I was at a softball tournament, and I got really ill and had a lot of weird symptoms like nausea and couldn’t eat and was losing weight. My mom was my coach for my team and she thought this was really odd, so when we got back home, we scheduled some doctor appointments, and they couldn’t figure anything out. They just thought it was acid reflux. That was the end of that,” said Knicely who was just 11 at the time.
A very sick athlete and mom were determined to get answers, so they traveled from Virginia to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia where they got them. A diagnosis of a congenital heart birth defect revealed that her aorta would compress her esophagus every time it would pump blood to the size of a pin needle down at the bottom, which is why Knicely couldn’t eat very much and why it would hurt to breathe when she exercised.
“At that point, my symptoms had become so severe, I had to quit softball. There was really no way, especially as a pitcher, with my aorta connected directly to my arm, I could continue to do that. They did tell me I could have surgery, but there was only a 50% survival rate, so my mom immediately shut that down,” Knicely recalls.
As an active young person, Knicely wasn’t about to sit around and mope. She started researching other activities in her hometown of Bridgewater that could keep her busy. That is when she read about 4-H. One of her friends that lived on a dairy farm was involved in the youth program so she decided it would be a good way to spend time with her and make other new friends. When she learned she needed to take a project, she proposed the idea of a sheep project to her mom, although her family only raised cattle. She started with two Suffolk lambs and never looked back.
“Their names were April and May. I had them, and I absolutely loved them and that became my next passion, so much that I begged my grandfather to buy them back for me at the fair so I could breed them for next year’s project. He agreed. So next year, I had a bred-and-owned project, and I did that until my senior year. When I started showing sheep, agriculture became my passion,” she said.
Agriculture gave Knicely a new lease on life. She became involved in FFA in middle school and credits both her middle school FFA advisor Mike Long and a high school ag teacher Codi Jo Wheelbarger, who had served as a state FFA officer, for encouraging her in her passion for agriculture and FFA.
“Once I became old enough, in middle school, to join FFA, I did that immediately. As soon as I put on the blue jacket, I just felt like I found my home. Like this was my calling and purpose,” Knicely said.
Slipping on the blue jacket wasn’t enough. Knicely found herself completely immersed in FFA, and she continued to raise and show sheep. She enjoyed being around like-minded, hardworking people her age who shared the passion for agriculture. In fact, she enjoyed FFA so much, she decided to run for a state office, at the encouragement of Wheelbarger.
As she prepared to run for state FFA, she had one more challenge that most young people preparing for a high-caliber leadership post don’t worry about. In 2018, she had closed heart surgery at John Hopkins to correct her birth defect. She said that having the procedure was nerve-wracking for both her and her mom, as she was preparing to run for a position that would require so much time on her body, traveling the state of Virginia.
However, her surgery and her preparation paid off, and she was named to the 2018-2019 Virginia FFA State Officer Team, along with eight other people who she became close with. She traveled the state with them talking to other young FFA members about agriculture, leadership and personal development. They even traveled to South Africa on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“I liked being around other like-minded people with a passion for agriculture, and it wasn’t judgmental. It was so welcoming and inclusive. This is where I was supposed to be and where I belonged. FFA has had such a profound impact on my life. This is where I want to be, and what I want to commit the rest of my life to doing. It has truly changed my life,” Knicely said.
“As I look back on my life. I thank God for getting me through it. I’m really blessed to be where I am today,” Knicely said. “I know everything happens for a reason. And I’m so thankful and glad I’ve had the experiences I had, and honestly, I’d do it over again because this is my calling and everything is in God’s timing and everything has a reason, a purpose behind it.”
She has decided her purpose is to make an impact on young people with a passion and an interest in agriculture, just like she did, and she wants to ignite that passion early on. Knicely is currently a senior at Virginia Tech, studying Agricultural Sciences with a minor in Leadership and Social Changes. She hopes after she graduates in May 2022, to find a job as a middle school or junior high ag teach and FFA advisor.
“I just want to give students an opportunity to find their place and flourish. I want to help them reach their goals and become the best version of themselves. The best version of themselves is already inside them, I just want to help unlock that potential because I know my ag teachers did that for me,” she said.
Our future isn’t always ours to decide. With an open mind and faith, the possibilities are endless. For one little star softball player, her fate was forever changed by a broken heart, but she followed her heart and her faith to a future where she wants to help others succeed. That’s better than pitching a no-hitter any day.