Ag Youth Share Gifts of Food, Fiber and Friendships

It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” but not everyone looks forward to the holiday season. For some, the loneliness becomes more apparent, while others don’t always have the financial means to provide for their family and loved ones. A 4-H member in Illinois and an FFA Chapter in California have discovered the true joy in giving to others, especially around the holiday season.

What started as a Service Learning project for then, second-year 4-H member Olivia Shike, has spiraled into a long-term Citizenship project for the now 11-year-old from Sadorus, Ill. The first year she started visiting the residents at Maple Point Assisted Living, along with her parents, Dan and Jennifer, and younger siblings, Hunter and Harper. She wanted to give them a gift in addition to visiting them, then she remembered a tie-blanket she had made her grandfather for Christmas. She thought the residents at Maple Point would each enjoy a tie-blanket too. So, she got other members of her 4-H Club, the Sadorus 4-H All Stars, involved in the Blanket Buddies project.

“It’s a visual reminder that someone is always caring about them because it can get really lonely at the facility when their family isn’t always near.” Olivia said. “We wanted to make them the blankets, so they would remember someone is always loving them and someone cares for them.”

Olivia took her Blanket Buddies proposal to the Champaign County Extension Council to ask for funding. They granted her $250 for materials to make the blankets. Her 4-H club provided matching funds for any extra costs. Club members met for two nights to make the tie blankets, which don’t require any sewing, before delivering 33 total blankets to the residents of Maple Point. While there, the youth shared with the residents about their different 4-H projects and started forming friendships.

Satisfied with the Blanket Buddies phase of her project, and with other members of her club meeting the residents at Maple Point, Olivia developed Phase 2 of her Citizenship project – Pen Pals. She asked the residents who were interested in having a pen pal to write their name and address on an envelope and matched them up with other young people in her 4-H club.

“After we handed out blankets some of the kids in my club came up and said, ‘I made friends with so-and-so’ and I would give that kid that person’s envelope to be pen pals with,” she said.

The Pen Pals project allows friendships to blossom between the generations and keeps the communication flowing between in-person visits. Olivia and her family visit as often as they can, and she said she plans activities for the club to attend and participate in like a talent show, carnival and Bingo.

The Shikes visited at Halloween and will visit Maple Point again closer to Christmas. Although they enjoy visiting with all residents, Olivia says her family has formed three special friendships over the years. Her brother Hunter and his pen pal, Willard, who unfortunately passed away last spring, liked to talk about everything, especially Legos. Olivia’s pen pal, Donna, always asks her about school. And, Hunter’s other pen pal, Helen, who is blind, can always hear little sister Harper, and enjoys the visits.

“It makes her day a whole lot better,” Olivia said about Helen. “Holidays are the hardest times for them. That is when they miss their family the most.”

“You’re never too young to make a difference. You can always find a way to help and spread holiday cheer. Even if it is just going to see a neighbor that is going through a hard time. You don’t have to do a big project or a big elaborate thing to make a difference.”

Just more than 2,000 miles west of Maple Point Assisted Living, the River Valley FFA Chapter from Yuba City, Calif., is working to make the holidays brighter for nearly a dozen families. The chapter is in a highly-populated area, but considers itself rural due to its large agricultural presence known for its production of rice, peaches and prunes.

The River Valley FFA officer team said they started two different community service projects several years ago to give back to their local community. They start by contacting the local elementary schools and asking for names of families who need a little extra help during the holidays.

They start with a Thanksgiving meal, and this year provided a full-blown meal to six families the Monday of Thanksgiving week. Students from the various agriculture classes donated non-perishable items like canned vegetables, instant potatoes, gravy mixes, stuffing and cranberry sauces. The chapter uses money from fundraising efforts to provide the turkey, pies, rolls and apple cider.

“We always give back during the holidays; it’s just what we do,” said Chapter President Marina Huff. “It is important because we are able to help others that can’t help themselves.”

Treasurer Amelia Mann said it feels good to help others and knows whatever help they offer is appreciated.

“We have learned you can’t help everyone, but it is nice to help whoever we can with the means that we have. Some of the families had kids in their car, and the look on their face when we gave them the food was priceless,” Amelia said.

In addition to providing six Thanksgiving meals, River Valley FFA will also brighten six additional families’ Christmas with the gift of decorated Christmas trees. Baker Christmas Trees will donate the trees, and students once again come forward to donate the lights and ornaments. The chapter hosts a large Christmas party after school where the students and advisors come together to decorate the trees. Then, the officers deliver the trees to their new owners.

As much as these community service projects impact those in need, Reporter Hannah Graham said giving back has made her feel better and brought their chapter closer.

“I have learned that giving to others impacts my life and makes me feel like a better person,” Hannah said. “The best memories from these projects are the looks on the faces of the families and my chapter officers becoming more of a family.”

Getting others involved is key to a successful community service project, according to the officer team. The Bakers’ daughter is a past member of the FFA, and they continue to donate trees.

Vice president Gabe Bruce hopes the recipients understand that the gifts they are given – food and trees – are a product of agriculture and how agriculture effects everyone.

“I do hope that more people think of and appreciate how important ag is,” Gabe said. “Take what you do to heart. When you give back to the community, don’t boast about it, but be modest and happy with what you’ve done.”

Fiber. Food. Friendships. Many people take these basic agricultural products for granted. But for those who live alone or might not be able to provide for their family around the holidays, it takes some of today’s youth to remind them they are cared for, and you’re never too young to make a difference.

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