Waupun FFA Chapter president among U.S. Presidential Scholars

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Katrina Pokorny had the opportunity of a lifetime to teach her beeswax processing skills to Haitian women in a mission trip in August 2017.

WAUPUN – Katrina Pokorny isn't one to let a need go unfulfilled.

The far-reaching efforts of the Waupun Area High School senior were well noted by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars who poured over thousands of applicants competing for the distinction of being named one of the 161 U.S. Presidential Scholars. 

Pokorny received word last month that she one of 20 high school seniors who were tapped as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in Career and Technical Education. 

"This award is very humbling, considering all the odds I overcame since I was little," Pokorny said.

As a young girl, Pokorny she was shy and didn't do well in big crowds. And the thought of speaking in front of a group of people was terrifying.

"I had undergone speech therapy for a number of years, and just going out and socializing with others has always been hard for me," she admitted. "But over the years I realized that if you want to see a change you have to put yourself out there."

Her experiences in 4-H and FFA has helped Katrina Pokorny gain confidence not only in her public speaking skills but in dealing with a variety of people of all ages and of different cultures.

Finding her niche

Pokorny credits her parents, Doyle and Kim Pokorny of rural Waupun, for pushing their three children to step outside of their comfort zones, encouraging them to try new things and to find a way to give back to their community.

"They're always helping us with our crazy ideas like going to Haiti or starting up a non-profit," Pokorny said. "Without them my brothers and I wouldn't be where we are today."

After participating in a Christian veterinary mission trip to Haiti where she vaccinated animals and provided medical care, Kim Pokorny learned of the need for beekeeping  and encouraged her then 16 year old daughter to accompany her on a return trip in 2017.

While in Haiti, Kim planned to educate the Haitian women on how to raise bees and work the hives as a means to create income for their families. Katrina would teach them how to use the beeswax collected from the hives to make lotions and other products to sell.

Katrina Pokorny has become an advocate for Wisconsin beekeepers since learning to create products from bees wax, a staple of her business Sassy Kat's Bees Wax.

Beginning with beeswax

Pokorny says her brother, Dylan (also a U.S. Presidential Scholar) began working with bees along with his grandfather when he was just 11. Manning 8 hives, Dylan collected the honey and began marketing it.

"I'm scared of working with bees, and since he wasn't using the beeswax I figured making products from it would be one way I could stay in the same market," she said of her decision in 2013.

Pouring over Pintrest, Pokorny gathered ideas and recipes for potential value-added beeswax products—lip balm, hand cream, deodorant, rash creams, honey milk soap, lotions and votive candles—for her business Sassy Kat's Bees Wax. So when her mother invited her to accompany her to Haiti, one of world's most impoverished countries, Pokorny agreed and set to work raising funds to cover travel expenses and supplies that she would leave behind with the Haitian farm families.

"I believe if you can teach them about agriculture it will help bring them out of poverty," Pokorny said."

Katrina Pokorny plays a card game with residents during her mission trip to Haiti in 2017.

Heart for Haiti

After she returned home, Pokorny felt in her heart that her work with the Haitian people was not finished. Touched by the abject poverty faced by the people still dealing with the remnants of destruction from the 2010 earthquake, Pokorny created a non-profit organization—Feeding Haiti Through Agriculture Education.

Purchasing goods from Haiti at wholesale prices, Pokorny resells the items here in the U.S. at full price, with the profits being returned to the school in Haiti where Pokorny taught.

"We're so fortunate here in America that we don't even realize it," Pokorny said. "Most kids in Haiti don't have an education past third grade. I want to help give back to someone that hasn't the same opportunities that I've had."

Pokorny, who serves as the President of the Waupun Area High School FFA Chapter, nominated her advisor and ag teacher Tari Costello as her most influential teacher—an honor that her brother, Dylan, also bestowed on the educator.

Waupun FFA Chapter President Katrina Pokorny nominated her ag teacher and FFA advisor Tari Costello as her most influential teacher in her U.S. Presidential Scholar application.

"She's basically my second mother. She cares for me outside of school and I know she always has my back," Pokorny said. "She goes above and beyond for everyone and I knew there was no one better that I could choose than her."

Costello says she is impressed by Pokorny's dedication to the people of Haiti. 

"A lot of people go on mission trips and are moved by the experience, but we rarely follow through. We return home and forget about it," Costello said. "She comes back, starts a non-profit and is sending money back to Haiti, as well as continuing to help educate and develop curriculum for the school she's partnering with down there."

Mover and a shaker

Before heading off to South Dakota this summer to work at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where she will work with veterinarians, Pokorny will travel to Washington D.C. from June 23-25 where the U.S. Presidential Scholars will be honored for their accomplishments. 

This fall she will enroll at UW-Eau Claire where she will pursue a degree in Public Health—a career choice that she feels will blend together her love for agriculture, community outreach and service.

"For me, it's a balance between being involved in agriculture and being able to give back to people," she said, "and I think public health fits that niche in my life."

Costello sees a bright future for the talented graduate.

"She's going to be a mover and shaker in the ag industry when it comes to public health; whether working in food safety or animal health where there's an impact on humans," Costello said. "There's no question in my mind she's going to be a name that we're going to know in the ag industry."