In 1990, the Paris FFA chapter shut down. For 10 years, the program was shelved, on the sidelines, in the small north-central farming community. Then a group of farm families spoke up and asked the school district to reinstate the program. FFA returned in 2000.
Just 21 years after being shuttered, during the 2021 National FFA Convention, the program rose to the highest distinction in the organization, one that other chapters look to emulate. Paris FFA is the Model of Excellence winner, making it the top FFA chapter in the nation.
What set this Missouri FFA chapter apart from others across the country was its unique programs revolving around the Model of Excellence program’s three pillars — growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture.
Their award stems from work done in 2020, a year that was far from typical for any FFA chapter across the country as COVID-19 gripped the nation. Schools shut down, and events were canceled, leaving agricultural education and clubs struggling to engage with members.
But Paris FFA was not willing to give up. “Grind. Don’t stop.” That was FFA member Katrina Thomas’ mindset during COVID-19. “We were going to keep our members engaged,” she says. So her chapter created projects to help fellow members and the community.
Supporting ag, providing food security
Meals of Plenty started during the height of the COVID-19 food shortages. Paris FFA president Carlee Long recalls wanting to provide nutrition for those who were already struggling with food security, which became exacerbated by the limited food supply.
“We developed a plan to do something with fresh food instead of the normal food drives with canned foods,” she explains. “We wanted to provide something that was nutritious.”
FFA members attended local Amish auctions and purchased fresh produce to fill boxes. Members selected the produce and bid on items. With purchases in hand, members filled the boxes.
For Thanksgiving, students added a ham or turkey, milk, bread, eggs, stuffing, green beans and a fresh-made pie from the agricultural education food science class.
The chapter made 42 food boxes and donated them to the First Baptist Church of Paris, which serves those in need for the area.
“The Paris community has always given so much to our FFA chapter that we wanted to return the favor and provide something that people were in need of,” Long says. “It’s about giving back to your community.”
Pink in the country
During the spring of 2020, flamingos were showing up in farms and city yards across the Paris area. Not live birds, but rather plastic pink flamingos put in place by FFA members.
The “Flamingo Farming” social media project started as COVID-19 forced many schools to close doors and students to quarantine.
“You were isolated from school. You don’t get to see all your friends. You’re stuck at home with family,” Thomas adds. “We had a few members that were struggling a bit. We wanted to make sure our members were OK, mental health-wise.”
So, Paris FFA searched for ways to connect. They placed pink flamingos out in fellow members’ yards, along with a sign. “Members had to post on social media something positive that came out of quarantine,” Thomas explains. If there were no post within 48 hours, advisors would check on the member.
Saving lives in a small town
Paris FFA members knocked on 500 doors in their community. “We encouraged them to replace their batteries and check their smoke detectors,” Long says. But it was more than just a message many homeowners hear around every time change.
Members handed out 350 smoke detectors and 1,500 9-volt batteries. It was part of a Living to Serve Grant from FFA secured by now former FFA member Chris Ebbesmeyer, whose dad is a volunteer firefighter. “It was a passion of his,” Long says. “We wanted to make it happen.”
Time to shine
After two years of hard work during difficult times, members received their award during the 94th National FFA Convention and Expo in late October.
“I was so proud of these students for what they accomplished and grateful for a community that continues to support us year in and year out,” advisor Josh Bondy says.
“What we want people to remember is this is not about us,” Thomas adds. “It is about the chapter, the community, all the member participation.”
“To think,” Bondy adds, “this program was closed for years, and a community brought it back so these kids could experience not just this winning moment, but years of learning to serve and give back to each other and their community. That is what the FFA is all about.”