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MADISON - Even as the temperature climbed into the 90s, the heat and sweltering humidity couldn't keep FFA members from lending a hand out in the community.

Over 200 youth from across the state banded together to give back to the Madison community during the 9th annual Wisconsin FFA Day of Service. Sporting blue T-shirts emblazoned with the mantra "Living to Serve", the energetic band of volunteers headed off to eight service sites on Monday, June 12.

Several FFA chapters opted to work outdoors, assisting the City of Madison Parks Division, Goodman Youth Farm, and the UW Arboretum mulching trees, repairing hiking trails, pulling weeds and gathering firewood.

With sweat running down their faces, after pulling thistles from a garlic patch at Goodman Youth Farm, several FFA members from the Flambeau, Clintonville and Wittenberg-Birnamwood took a leisurely stroll through the sprinkler watering the pole beans.

"We're sweating quite a bit out here," said Flaumbeau FFA member Katie Zimmer. "We didn't mind. This way the younger kids that visit don't have to deal with the thistles when they come out to visit and work."

Goodman Youth Farm Manager Jennica Skoug said FFA members did a lot to improve the farm for the legions of students who visit the 5-acre educational center throughout the school year and summer.

Skoug estimated that over 3800 students visit the farm each year to engage in hands-on, farm-based education that includes planting and harvesting to cooking with the produce that they grow.

"A lot of the kids that come here do a lot of work on the farm but there are some jobs where we need older students and bigger groups to come in and help with wood chipping or collecting firewood that might take our younger students several hours."

Flambeau FFA Advisor Katie Bernecker said she was impressed with the mission of Goodman Youth Farm that allows urban youth to become actively involved in the entire process of running a small-scale organic farm.

"Here there is a greater need to educate youth about farming, and it's really cool to see the larger Madison community educating youth," Bernecker said. "Hopefully our kids will go back to their home community and do something like this, but obviously on a smaller scale."

Serving a diverse community

FFA members also had the opportunity to volunteer their time at community outreach organizations that assist those living in poverty. At the River Food Pantry — Dane County's busiest food pantry — FFA members helped clean the facility and stock shelves. FFA members rolled up their sleeves at the Salvation Army of Dane County, helping with site maintenance and cleaning.

FFA members from the Gilman and Auburndale FFA Chapters headed to the northwest side of Madison to donate community service hours at the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin (CAC).

Operations Supervisor Carissa Cornwell explained to FFA members that the coalition works to eliminate poverty through many programs including financial and housing assistance, a clothing center, family support programs, community gardens, and the food pantry network.

While there, FFA members attacked a mountain of donated clothes, unpacking, sorting and filling racks inside the clothing center.

"Those who qualify based on income are allowed to shop here once a month, taking home a bag of clothing for each family member," Cornwell told the group. "We serve anywhere between 200-500 families a month in the clothing center. Sometimes we have 30 families that come through during  a 5-hour window."

Cornwall said the clothing center is staffed entirely with volunteers.

"We absolutely appreciate their help," Cornwell said. "The Community Action Coalition couldn't operate without volunteers."

Eye-opening and humbling

Auburndale FFA Advisor Mark Cournoyer said serving others less fortunate is a humbling and eye-opening experience for his FFA chapter.

"Two years ago one of the workers told us her story, how the Salvation Army helped her to get back on her feet during a really rough time, giving her a job that allowed her to gain work experience, helping her to be a productive person once again," Cournoyer said. "It's neat that the kids get to see something like this because it does make an impact on them." 

Emma Dimick of Auburndale FFA said she appreciates that CAC serves a wide area and demographic of residents in southwest Wisconsin.

"I like what CAC does for the community and that they not only serve Dane County but Jefferson and Waukesha too," Dimick said. "That allows it to have a widespread impact."

Gilman FFA Alumni Rachael Krug says working at the CAC may hit close to home for some youth hailing from the north central Wisconsin village of Gilman.

"Serving others is especially important for us because we come from a low-income district, so it's different for us to come back and help those who may be facing some of the same issues that many of our own members may be dealing with," Krug said. "It gives them an opportunity to give back to other communities in the same way they're being helped at home."

Inspiring ideas

Other work sites visited by FFA members this week include the Goodman Community Center that offers programs to help preschoolers through teenagers succeed in school and life, in addition to offering meals and social activities for older adults as well as a food pantry.

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FFA members also served  the Oakwood Village University Woods Retirement Community by helping with staining outdoors.

Wrapping up the day, FFA members were invited by the state officer team in assembling meal packets to be distributed to the Second Harvest Food Bank

The FFA Rally to Fight Hunger enlisted the help of nearly 500 members and advisors in packaging over 40,000 pounds of food to distribute to the needy.

Krug says that students participating in service projects are more likely to spearhead them back home in their own community.

"Through the years, not only was I inspired to take ideas back home as an FFA member, I still feel its important to bring these experiences and ideas back with me to college and my new community," said Krug who aspires to be an Ag teacher. "The more things I'm able to give back to others only helps to keep the chain reaction of service going."

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