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Indiana Leaders Epitomize FFA Can-Do Spirit

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, February 19, 2021

There came a time when Kylie Schakel and Evan Coblentz worried their tenure as Indiana FFA state officers would warrant little more than a footnote in the organization's historical account.

What if their year-long contribution would someday be summed up as, "Served during the COVID-19 pandemic when little, if anything, could be accomplished"?

Heading into National FFA Week, which begins on Saturday, Schakel and Coblentz are relieved to know that not only were their fears unfounded, they couldn't have been further removed from the reality of the situation.

"Going into the year, I was very scared about what it was going to be like and if we were going to be the forgotten team," Schakel said last week in a telephone interview. "But I think through our numbers and through what we've seen through social media, it's the complete opposite.

"I am so grateful that I am a state officer during this time and I've made my impact by showing members there is hope. I'm thankful that we had the opportunity to recreate that playbook and set the mode for state officer teams to come."

Schakel, of Atlanta, Ind. and the Hamilton Heights FFA chapter, and Coblentz, of North Webster and the Wawasee chapter, began their respective terms as secretary and treasurer last June as daily life for all Hoosiers was being impacted in some way by shutdowns, closures and other restrictions.

The seven officers' time-honored expectations of traveling throughout the state to visit with school groups, agricultural business and industry entities and service groups were dashed even before taking up residence at the Indiana FFA Leadership Center in Trafalgar.

Nothing could be more antithetical to the leadership team's outreach mission than sheltering in place, so the team had to figure out other ways to do the job, and they did.

"We will go down as the pandemic team because we came in with the pandemic and we might be going out with the pandemic, too," said Coblentz, a graduate of Wawasee High School. "It's been a challenging time and something we have had to overcome, but it's honestly something that makes us want to take strides to be better, and continue provide those opportunities and support the members even during these trying times.

"We will not be forgotten. I think we're going to see a lot of the things we started this year stick around, and we might be seeing some of the stuff we've done in the past go away. We've definitely been able to improve on some of the things we do as an organization."

In addition to having its leadership qualities drawn out in new and innovative ways, what will make this team all the more memorable is how it is re-inventing the FFA wheel and maximizing the impact of previously known, but undeveloped, methods to connect and communicate.

Before team members were recently OK'd to travel to places such as the Beck's Hybrids seed company in Atlanta, they became masters at virtual voyages via Zoom, which turned out to have a far greater reach than pressing the flesh.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Indiana FFA has had to become more agile and adaptable, which in turn has made it even stronger.

The team produces content for its "Corduroy Connect" video and podcast series—named for those ubiquitous navy blue bomber jackets sported by FFA members.

"The video series, especially, is our more successful part of Corduroy Connect," Coblentz said. "We have five episodes out, so looking at that number of 5,300 (viewers), we're looking at over 1,000 views per video. We think that's pretty good given that we have a following on Instagram about 7,000 and we're at about 11,000 on Facebook—so we're pretty impressed.

"The podcast is a little bit lower than we anticipated, but we've reached more of a niche market, so we're still very happy with reaching 661 total listeners."

Furthermore, Corduroy Connect filled some of the void created when the national New Horizons FFA print magazine was discontinued before the pandemic as a cost-cutting measure (an online version is still available). Information tailored for Indiana FFA used to be featured in a section called The Impact.

"We felt the need the need to find something that would replace it so we can still reach out to our members and have a specific Indiana FFA, news-type, one-stop shop," Coblentz said. "We went from impacting zero members, once that magazine was taken away, to now impacting over 5,000 members.

"For Indiana FFA, the video series has really taken off and we're excited to see where it goes in years to come, especially starting it from the ground up this year."

Like companies across the nation finding value workers able to operate remotely, the Indiana FFA officers have taken the organization to another-level.

"The biggest change that has allowed us to see where we're going in the future is the whole virtual aspect," Schakel said. "State officers before us had no training in how to facilitate a virtual conference or virtual chapter visit.

"I think our state officer team has really seen the impact that virtual can have, and moving forward, that invention is only going to push our organization further because it allows more people to see the work that we're doing."

During the team's traditional district kickoff in the fall, officers would travel the state in pairs and reach about 100 people at about four schools in each district each day. There's no limit to the number of students the officers can reach with pre-recorded chapter visits available to every school in the state.

While the officers appreciate the value of face-to-face meetings, the productions allow them to get to venues they aren't able to visit in a given year.

"This year, we implemented a virtual option and a live, not-in-person but on-demand option, and we were able to reach over 1,900 members, which is more than the year before," Schakel said. "We see that this virtual option is engaging more students and allowing us to push the advocacy for ag education even further."

Had so much of the leadership team's time been spent on traveling, it likely wouldn't have been able to develop a platform that could augment the operation for years to come.

"We envision the projects that we have started being something the teams will carry on for who knows how long, but we've already prepped all the way until August, two months past when we're out of office, just to get the next team a head start," Coblentz said. "They're going to be able to hopefully hit the ground running and take over with topics already prepared for them and some podcast guests already lined up."

The team's efforts have been rewarded with results that may not have been anticipated given the negative impact the pandemic has on attendance and participation in other job, school and social activities.

"Another cool thing to note is, this year our membership has actually gone up," Schakel said. "We were at about 4,509 members and we've been able to increase that to 4,559 members, and we went from 209 chapters to 212 chapters.

"I think ag education, as a whole, continues to grow with advocacy through different avenues, whether that be through state officers or through local chapters. I think this bump just signifies ag education is important. Whether it's because students are seeking a new avenue because of the coronavirus or whether students just want those leadership skills, we've continued to grow."

Indiana FFA has chapters in all but two of the state's 92 counties.

The officers will spend FFA week traveling to their various districts to celebrate with different chapters and members.

"February has been the most busy, hectic month we've had thus far," Schakel said. "Looking forward to FFA Week, we'll be doing kind of a hybrid mix of those in-person and virtual visits. It has been really nice because while I have more in-person visits scheduled compared to virtual, we have the option available if we have to follow COVID-19 guidelines that won't allow us into certain schools."

After FFA Week, the team will go into its state convention retreat, where it will finalize all of its plans for the state convention, Coblentz said.

While Schakel, Coblentz and their leadership teammates took office during the state convention that was converted to a virtual format, the hope is the 2021 version will be held in person at Purdue University for a dynamic, energetic, unforgettable experience only a live event can provide.

"As of right now, we are planning for an in-person convention, working with Purdue University if we can get into their facilities, and if not, we're going to start looking at some other locations," Schakel said.

And if that doesn't work, this team is sure to figure out something that will.

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