|By SUSAN BLOWER
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — About 55,000 blue coats will swarm Indianapolis this week as the FFA National Convention debuts in the Hoosier State, following seven years in Louisville, Ky.
Kicking off Wednesday, the 79th annual National FFA Convention is the largest single event this year in Indianapolis, organizers said. The convention, drawing FFA members from across the country, will stay in Indiana for seven years before other cities will be able to bid for it.
“I’m not sure Indianapolis is ready for us. This is the first year, and there are so many details,” said FFA Foundation board member Sam Atherton.
Atherton is one of at least 1,000 volunteers who make the convention run smoothly behind the scenes. Finding that many willing workers could be a tall order, but because of the loyalty of alumni and parents of FFA students, it isn’t too hard, said Frank Saldana, executive director of the FFA National Alumni Assoc.
“Many of our volunteers view the convention as a time to give back for all that FFA has done for them and for their kids. Many keep returning,” Saldana said.
Atherton is flying in from Sherryvale, Kan., to volunteer for seven long days and nights. This isn’t his first year - or his last. Atherton started out as a volunteer in Kansas City nine years ago and isn’t burned out yet.
“I volunteer because I believe FFA is the greatest youth organization in America. It builds young people to be leaders for tomorrow,” Atherton said.
“I’ve seen freshmen, who were afraid to tell me their name, learn to give 10-minute speeches.
“It is something they will use for the rest of their life. You have to be able to speak to get anywhere in this world,” Atherton said.
Atherton speaks from experience. He was in FFA in high school and graduated in 1966.
“Back then, FFA was about cows and plows. Now it’s computers and technology, global systems, the Internet. The technology has changed so much that the terminology wasn’t there 40 years ago,” he said.
“I wasn’t a contest winner, but it got me out of the bushes. FFA has continued to grow for me,” Atherton added.
Atherton has had two children who were state degree winners in FFA, and his daughter is now an ag teacher and FFA advisor.
Cindy Ettestad, another longtime volunteer from Molalla, Ore., likewise got involved in FFA because of her children.
“My two children definitely would not be where they are today if it weren’t for FFA,” Ettestad said.
Her son is a technician for John Deere and her daughter has children involved in 4-H.
“Our son - when he was a sophomore - was in a serious accident, and the other student was killed. The ag teacher and the FFA chapter surrounded him and made him realize he had something to go on for. His ag teacherer’s belief in him is the reason for the vocation he chose,” Ettestad said.
Despite never having been in FFA herself, Ettestad has served as the president of the FFA National Alumni Assoc. and the current president of the Oregon Alumni Assoc.
“The main reason I volunteer at convention is that I believe in what the program has to offer,” Ettestad said. “I always go away with something new, even if it’s a belief in our future. If these kids are the leaders of tomorrow, we’re in good shape.”
Atherton said the national convention is an exciting place to be.
“If you don’t get goosebumps in the first session, you’re dead. The light show is tremendous, and the national officers are outstanding men and women. It’s just an awesome experience and professionally done,” Atherton said.
The national officers are high school graduates who are selected based on merit in FFA. The six young men and women plan and lead the national convention each year, among other duties.
The 2005-06 National FFA Officer Team consists of President Travis Jett, from Oklahoma; Secretary Jessie Geib, from South Dakota; Eastern Region Vice President Ryan Peterson, from Michigan; Southern Region Vice President Erica Der, from Florida; Central Region Vice President Anita Estes, from Nebraska, and Western Region Vice President Stuart Joy, from New Mexico.
A new location means logistical hurdles for the organizers. A big change this year is that the convention is not all in one place as it was in Louisville.
“We are at Conseco Fieldhouse, the RCA Dome, the Indiana Fairgrounds, nine downtown hotels, Fort Benjamin Harrison and the University of Illinois. Size and specific needs that the different facilities fill were factors,” said Julie Adams, teams leader for marketing and community service.
Executive director of the Indiana FFA, Brian Buchanan, said the national officers have been planning the convention for three years.
“With 55,000 people, you have to plan for parking, emergency vehicles, police and logistics,” Buchanan said.
What brings so many to the convention? Besides light shows, hardcore sessions on career development, leadership, technology, speech contests, and much more.
In addition to the new location and layout, another new feature is the first FFA Day of Service, in which members will serve in various capacities in Indianapolis, including Habitat for Humanity. Adams said the number of volunteers is expected to double every year.
Perhaps an even bigger draw is the Carrie Underwood concert just for kids with an official blue coat, which is expected to be the biggest gathering of FFA members under one roof, Adams said.
“Unfortunately, it is only open to FFA members,” laughed Adams.
This Indiana farm news was published in the Oct. 25, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.