What a difference a year makes. On March 20, Pittsburg County 4-H’er and member of the Canadian 4-H Club, Serena Woodard will be standing on stage in Washington, D.C., and accepting the 2018 4-H Youth in Action Agriculture Pillar Award.
This national award recognizes her resilience and leadership within the Oklahoma 4-H Youth Development Program and showcases individuals who have overcome challenges and used their 4-H knowledge to create a lasting impact. Her leadership skills are evident in everything she does in 4-H, but this honor also recognizes her ability to overcome adversity. Exactly one year earlier, March 20, 2017, she and her family lost their home to a fire.
Numerous 4-H awards, her official State 4-H Ambassador uniform, her show rabbits, literally everything she’d worked for in her life, and what her family had worked for, went up in flames.
Despite this devastation, Serena knew the importance of her 4-H work and was determined to continue being the leader and role model she’s always been. She never lost faith and her 4-H family rallied around her and her family to help them get started once again.
“4-H Day at the Capitol was just two weeks away and I no longer had my 4-H Ambassador uniform to wear,” she said. “After calling Greg Owen, my Extension educator, things started falling into place. Within hours, 4-H’ers from across the state got word of what had happened, and they started helping with everything from getting my family food and clothing to supplying food for our animals. That’s when I knew I would be able to carry on with the 4-H work I’d started. We got so much food given to use for our animals, we were able to donate it to others in need. Our family also received so many donations of clothing and household items, we were able to give to others.”
Her desire to become a leader and help others began at an early age. Her ability to overcome the adversity of losing her home to a fire, coupled with the educational workshops she teaches that have a lasting impact on thousands of school-age children across the state, are two things that have made Serena a standout in the 4-H world and deserving of this latest national recognition.
Serena’s early 4-H career was centered around her love of dancing. She gave presentations and talks on dance. When she was in sixth grade, Serena, along with her older sister Megan, began teaching Woodard’s Workshops. At the time, the workshops were mostly craft-based.
About that same time, Serena’s mother, Kathy Woodard, assumed her daughter’s 4-H career would remain focused on dance.
“One day she came home and said she wanted a goat,” Kathy said. “I said, OK, let’s get a goat. Her love of agriculture just ran away from there.”
With this new-found love of agriculture, the following year Serena decided to switch things up and focus more on agriculture in Woodard’s Workshops.
“I switched the focus because I realized many of my classmates didn’t know much about agriculture and how much it impacts our everyday living and society,” she said. “Agriculture is part of our everyday lives. Without agriculture we wouldn’t have roofs over our heads, clothes on our bodies or food on our tables. I think it’s so important, especially for this younger generation, to know where everything comes from. Besides, I love working with kids and seeing them expand their knowledge and grow to their full potential.”
The workshops cover different areas in agricultural science such as bee-keeping, entomology, animal science, hydroponics and gardening, and are more than simply telling students about agriculture. Serena creates hands-on opportunities to help reinforce the lesson.
For example, at a recent workshop about bee-keeping, one participant tried on a bee-keeping suit. The group tasted some honey Serena had harvested from the hives she keeps at her home. In addition, the students also did a craft project that consisted of making a bee out of construction paper.
“Hands-on activities like this really help reinforce the lessons I’m teaching. It also gives them a project that is ready for the county fair,” she said. “The bees the kids made can be entered into the paper project area at the fair if they are in 4-H. If they’re not, this is one way to help encourage them to become members.”
To date, Woodard’s Workshops have been taught in 39 counties and reached over 40,000 students.
Woodard has held numerous leadership roles such as Pittsburg County 4-H president, State 4-H Ambassador, Southeast District representative for the State 4-H Leadership Council and serves as an advisor for the Pittsburg County Ambassador Program. She also started a community garden project that donates fresh food to families in need.
Owen has been Serena’s 4-H educator for a number of years and describes her as an excellent role model and leader for the 4-H program, not only in Pittsburg County, but the state and beyond.
“Serena is the true essence of a leader. She never lets a challenge get in her way and if she doesn’t succeed the first time she tries something, she tries again and keeps pushing forward,” Owen said. “She honestly doesn’t require a lot of leadership from me. She’s always looking for leadership opportunities and I try to provide them so she can serve in those leadership roles.”
Owen went on to point out the many different leadership roles Serena has taken on within the Pittsburg County 4-H program, and the list is lengthy.
“To be honest, I’m not looking forward to the day she graduates,” Owen said with a smile. “She’s such a leader that she sat me down a while back and told me that we need to find kids who can replace her, so they can start learning from her now before she graduates. She’s been that way for as long as I can remember.”
When thinking back to that tragic night a year ago, Owen said the training opportunities he has had with his job did not train him for the phone call he received from Serena.
“The main thing she was telling me was everything she’d lost, which was basically all of her 4-H memories. They always say in 4-H to make the best better,” he said. “I felt like this situation would not only show her that she would be better from this, but also show her that 4-H is truly a family and it was their turn to step up and give back to a club member and the family who has so generously given so much to 4-H. After the fire I told people that I’d never been more proud to be a 4-H educator because literally the entire state came to bat for her and her family. It blew me away to see what the 4-H family gave to the family who has given so much of themselves to the 4-H organization.”
Resilience is a way of life for Serena. If things don’t work out the way she had planned, she finds another way to accomplish her goals. If it’s running for an office and not getting elected or losing her home in a fire, Owen said Serena finds a way to overcome the obstacle and continue to leave things better than she found them.
Her strength and resilience are something of which Serena’s mother is very proud.
“When we moved to Oklahoma from Nebraska, Serena was in third grade, I told her she needed to find something to do,” Kathy said. “She came home from school one day and told me one of her friends told her about 4-H. Her sister also wanted to join, so the girls signed up.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“We’re so proud of Serena for winning this award. She’s got such a positive outlook,” Kathy said. “After the fire she told me things would get better, and she was right - they are getting better. I don’t have any worries about her succeeding in life. She sees something she wants, and she goes for it. Nothing stops her, even when things don’t go her way. She just steps back for a minute and asks herself how she can get around this or how can she change it, and she just goes out and does it. I attribute these skills to 4-H.”
As the 2018 4-H Youth in Action Agriculture Pillar Award winner, Serena will receive a $5,000 college scholarship and serve as a spokesperson for 4-H agriculture programming. She will join the three other national winners at the awards presentation where one of them will be named the overall winner and awarded another $5,000 scholarship.
Serena is the third Youth in Action Pillar Winner from Oklahoma and all the winners are products of the Pittsburg County 4-H Program.