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Photo submitted A total of 340 FFA students attended the Washington, D.C., Leadership Conference in July.
Photo submitted Will Ela, Amber Mattler, Sydnie West and JD Miller represented the Hotchkiss FFA Chapter at the national leadership conference.

FFA members make memories at D.C. leadership conference

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The week of July 17-22, four of us from our chapter had the incredible opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., for a national leadership conference. There were 340 of us from all over the country, even Alaska! Some states had a few dozen students and others had very few. Upon arrival, we were very quickly separated from each other and were on our own for most of the week. At the time we were definitely freaking out a little bit but looking back now, that was the best possible thing that could have happened! It forced us to stop relying on being around people that we are familiar and comfortable with. On the first day, we arrived late afternoon. This was the day that the facilitators outlined the schedule and rules for the week.

On day two, the theme was OUR PURPOSE. That morning, we traveled outside the hotel to Arlington National Cemetery. At the cemetery, we saw Kennedy's Eternal Flame and also happened to see a military funeral procession. This day was special because we had the chance to honor the valiant men and women who found their greater "purpose" and chose to leave a legacy of service. When we got back to the hotel, our session was about identifying and combining our strengths and passions to develop OUR purpose. We witnessed the changing of the guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Leading up to that, every person was complaining about walking, the heat, their hair, being tired, and all manner of other things but when we got there, we were totally silent. We were all in awe at what we were seeing before us. For the rest of the day, there was hardly any complaints at all. It was a truly humbling experience for many.

Thursday was about DIVERSITY. On this day, the facilitators inspired us all to believe that diversity is about SO much more than skin color. True diversity is about every detail that makes a person who they are. That morning we took an anonymous poll about ourselves. They asked about parents marital status, if we have ever been outside the country, if we have ever lost someone to drug abuse, if we have ever been homeless, if we have ever been bullied, along with several other things. Later that day, they showed the results on the big screen. The facilitators went on to explain that 1) you might have more in common with the person sitting next you than you would think and 2) diversity is about recognizing those differences and making them strengths.

On Friday, the theme was ADVOCACY. That morning we went to the Newseum, where we saw the dedication of journalists from all over. The facilitators emphasized that these reporters made it their life's PURPOSE to ADVOCATE for what they believed in and we should too! That evening we took part in an interactive dinner session that brought many people to tears. Normally for dinner we all go to the ballroom and are dismissed by table to go to the buffet line but that night they let us into the room one by one, giving each of us special instructions. The facilitators told us to either go sit at one of the few tables, the floor, or in the corner. Once everyone was in the room and settled, the facilitators started to explain some things. They told us that the 15 percent of the room that were at the tables were the people of the world who could afford to eat three times a day. The 80 percent of us on the floor represented the people of the world living off of less than two dollars per day. The last 5 percent of the students that were in the corner representing those in the world affected by natural disasters in the world. The people at the tables got food and ate like normal. The people on the floor were in groups of 10 and got one small plate of rice to share. The people in the corner got nothing. If you weren't at a table, you also weren't allowed to be on your phone because if you can't afford to eat then you obviously couldn't afford a fancy new iPhone. They made a point that it is up to us to ADVOCATE for the needs in the world.

Saturday's theme was SERVE. On this day we did just that! All 340 of us participated in packing over 50,000 meals for those in poverty in the D.C. area. At first some of us were unsure about what exactly needed to be done but after seeing how the adults did it, we quickly got the hang of it. "If serving is below you, leadership is beyond you." Also on Saturday, we had five hours of free time in the city. Everyone traveled to the White House and met back there later.

When Sunday came around, we were all so sad to leave our new friends. We went from strangers to family in just a few short days. I am so grateful I have had this opportunity to make lifelong friendships, memories, and lessons. This has, without a doubt, been our favorite trip in FFA. We strongly encourage any FFA members who are thinking about going on this trip. You won't regret it, we promise.

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