CHECOTAH — A Checotah high school senior who is committed to giving back to his community is scheduled to be honored Tuesday at the White House.
Ridge Howell, 17, gives freely of his time to his eastern Oklahoma community, specifically concentrating on senior residents of Checotah. As chapter FFA president, Howell has provided leadership to his fellow FFA members to grow the chapter and help the community through various projects.
“Whenever I can help the senior citizens do something, they are so thankful and they shouldn't even have to be,” he said, “because they have so much to offer me.
“I have learned so many valuable life lessons from their knowledge and wisdom, beyond what I could ever learn in a classroom setting.”
Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Public Engagement will welcome about 30 4-H members and agricultural education students from across the United States, and their mentors, to the White House to recognize the exceptional ways the students are helping their communities.
The White House Champions of Change program highlights the stories and examples of individuals across the country who are winning the future with projects and initiatives that move their communities forward. Each week, the Office of Public Engagement hosts an event to honor those who are working to empower and inspire other members of their communities.
Wanting to help
A few years ago, Howell decided the best way to support existing efforts or initiate other positive changes in his community was to become active. He volunteered to help at the annual senior citizens' prom hosted by the Checotah High School Student Council. Howell said seniors come up and say how much the event means.
“This project is a prom for the senior citizens of my community, and yes they do wear tuxedos and formal dresses,” Howell said. “They're out there laughing and they dance more than we do at our prom.”
Howell also participates in the FFA senior citizens lawn mowing program.
For the past two years, Howell has not only organized, but provided many hours of labor for the lawn mowing program. Howell helped his agriculture education instructor Jason McPeak create this program a little more than three years ago.
Each week during the summer, Howell and usually one of his fellow FFA members go to the local senior center and draw two names. These two individuals receive free lawn mowing service, and sometimes other types of assistance around their homes.
“The best part of this program is the time spent with them, listening to the stories they tell while we are working for them,” Howell said.
There is a second-best part.
“They bring us lemonade, almost always,” he said. “Sometimes they bring out sweet tea, but usually lemonade.”
In the garden
Howell and fellow Checotah FFA students have also worked hard on a community garden. McPeak applied for and the Checotah FFA received a grant from Farmers Feeding the World and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. This grant provided necessary funding to develop raised-bed gardens and buy seed and plants. It has provided more than 1,200 pounds of produce for the members of the Checotah Senior Citizens Organization.
FFA members demonstrated to Checotah elementary students how to plant and raise vegetables.
Then the seeds were placed in the FFA greenhouse and allowed to grow.
The ground was prepared and soil added, then Checotah FFA members helped the students pre-K through second grade plant the fruits and vegetables.
Howell, working through in-kind contributions from his tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, maintained the garden throughout the summer, delivering fruits and vegetables to the seniors three times per week. The seniors who are unable to garden for themselves due to their age are enthusiastic to have homegrown vegetables provided for their consumption.
After graduating from high school, Howell plans to attend Oklahoma State University and study biology. He said would like to go on to either be a pediatrician or a psychiatrist.
McPeak has accompanied his student to Washington, D.C.
“Mr. McPeak is an example of community service in himself and inspires me to be a service-oriented citizen,” Howell said.
McPeak is confident that Howell will not only be a success, but also will continue to give back to others.
“Ridge on top of being extremely intelligent has a great deal of common sense because he grew up in a very agriculture-oriented background so he was exposed to a lot of stuff early on in life,” McPeak said. “He's been around the old farmers, and old ranchers and the old cowboys we've got here in Checotah, Oklahoma. He's sat down at the coffee shop with them since he was little. So, he's picked up on a lot. He's just well-rounded.”
I have learned so many valuable life lessons from (senior citizens') knowledge and wisdom, beyond what I could ever learn in a classroom setting.”