FFA changing lives, influencing students

West Liberty program among best in state, nation


FFA has changed.

What used to be an all-boys chapter decades ago, West Liberty High School’s FFA Chapter isn’t just for boys any longer. This year, the girls outnumber the boys in the organization nearly two to one (61 to 31) and long-time advisor Zach Morris says although that still may be a little unusual, he takes a lot of pride in the fact he’s built an agricultural based program that is changing lives and influencing students.

The teacher said West Liberty’s chapter may be opposite other programs in the state, but added there has always been an emphasis at West Liberty to encourage anyone to participate in FFA and the proud reputation of the program doesn’t hurt either. The fact is, West Liberty’s FFA has been among the top programs in the state for many years because of the organization’s community involvement and the shaping of a learning environment that has made a difference in the lives of area youngsters.

Morris says this year’s senior class is special – showing more progress in the five years they’ve been part of the program than any other class he’s ever had. He said the class is full of critical thinkers and problem solvers that have been a blessing to work with through one of the most difficult years in educational history.

The advisor said the group has helped “sell and market” the FFA program better than any other class he’s ever had, noting they will leave the Chapter “better than when they started in FFA.”

He said not everyone responds well to criticism, but instead of taking comments in a negative way, this class has discovered “the best way to grow is to make mistakes, get feedback and learn from those experiences. It’s the quickest way to grow as an individual.”

Morris said he simply loves being involved in the program and “helping get kids to their next step in life,” noting it’s not unusual to get a call from a student even as late as 10:30 in the evening asking for advice. He said the relationship and confidence he’s built with students continues even beyond high school, noting he gets calls from former students in college asking for advice.

Being a member of FFA doesn’t always mean things are going to be serious, Morris continued. “We still take some time for laughs,” he said. “We want this to be fun.”

Lindsey Laughlin, a senior who has been in the program for five years, is now the chapter president, an over-achiever who not only has helped the organization grow with her leadership skills, but is in charge of the FFA greenhouse, a plant-growing facility that provides a lot of income for the organization, from providing Poinsettia plants during the holidays to selling vegetable and flower plants in the spring.

Laughlin said she got involved in FFA because it was “something new” and a chance to “get outside of my zone” to learn about new ways of doing things and exploring concepts – including things she’d never thought about like speaking in front of people, an area she explains to be “very confident” today.

“Had I not joined FFA, I would not have gotten all the experience I have had,” she said, calling herself a better person overall because of the organization and leadership of Morris.

She said this past year, with everything taking place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a real challenge to lead the organization, but Laughlin said she worked out ways to get things done, utilizing time management skills she learned through FFA.

Another senior who is a chapter officer, Janey Gingerich, said joining FFA five years ago was an easy choice because she loved agriculture and has desires to someday become a veterinarian.

She said belonging to the chapter helped her get some valuable hands-on experience with veterinarian Leon Larson at the West Liberty Vet Clinic, noting Morris helped make that happen when the senior shined in Animal Science class.

Gingerich said the greatest thing she learned in being part of the chapter was communication, noting it is so important to plan ahead, utilize time management, and make sure you alert those involved if things might change. “Everybody’s super flexible,” she said of asking for changes.

She said leadership skills were also a big part of her FFA education, along with public speaking skills learned with FFA competitions that started with AG CSI in eighth grade. She said “living up to expectations” should a big part of anyone’s leadership role.

Gingerich said even though she’s never lived on a farm, she’s been given the opportunity to show livestock through FFA, something she never thought possible in her early years. Morris opens the doors to his family farm to help FFA members raise farm animals – all of them taking responsibility for their own livestock, from feeding them twice daily to making sure they’re clean and even learning simple things like placing a halter on a calf.

Another five-year FFA senior chapter officer, Isabel Morrison, does live on a farm and says she had a lot of influence from older friends that encouraged her to get involved in FFA, along with her dad, Chad Morrison, a former member of the chapter.

Although she’ll be going to St. Ambrose University in Davenport to major in nursing with a Spanish minor, Morrison says she enjoys raising calves and showing them at the Muscatine County Fair, something she said may not have happened until she got involved in FFA and then moved to a farm. “My dad got back into raising cattle,” she said, noting FFA had an influence in her role on the farm.

But she said the greatest thing she got out of being an FFA member was memorization skills, something Morris teaches as part of preparation for speaking contests. “I’ve discovered how to remember things in my own way,” she said, noting there will be a lot of knowledge she will have to memorize in her future nursing career and those skills will definitely come into use.

The three young ladies said they not only want to be role models for other girls to get into FFA, but encourage boys to belong as well, noting when it comes down to activities like accomplishing tasks for the community, everyone is involved.

“We really try to recruit eighth graders to show them what they can accomplish through FFA,” said Morrison, pointing out when she joined it was about putting together FFA projects like raising livestock.

Morris said he couldn’t be more proud of the leadership girls have provided for his chapter, pointing out the three girls interviewed for this story are all “very busy” in a variety of activities and sports for the school. “They’re juggling everything they do,” he said. “And they do a great job.”