Many high school students spend their weekends at the movies, the mall or cruising town in their first car. But Ridge Howell of Checotah, Okla., spent his high school weekends mowing lawns for senior citizens (for free) and working in his FFA chapter’s community garden, which also benefited the elderly.
“Ridge put in over 500 hours of community service working on our FFA senior citizens lawn mowing program and our FFA community garden, which was sponsored by a grant from the National FFA Organization and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation,” says Jason McPeak, Checotah FFA advisor. “Ridge has outstanding moral fiber and is one of the most kindhearted people you will meet.”
Native American Heritage
Now in his freshman year at Oklahoma State University, Ridge was FFA president, student body president and valedictorian of the class of 2013 at Checotah High School. He is also a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, one of five civilized Native American tribes relocated by the government from their homes in the Mississippi River basin to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
“My Native American heritage is my past, present and future,” Ridge says. “My dad’s side of the family are Muscogee Creek Nation, and my grandfather always told me lots of stories about my family’s history. Checotah High School has one of the highest Native American populations in the state.”
Ridge joined FFA in the ninth grade, but he was no stranger to agriculture. He had been showing animals through 4-H since age 9.
“When I joined FFA, I didn’t realize the impact it would have on my life,” he says. “I understood later it wasn’t just about agriculture – it teaches you leadership skills you will use the rest of your life.”
Washington, D.C., Bound
In November 2011, Ridge was invited by the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations to serve on a board called Native Voices in Washington, D.C. He was one of 10 students invited from different states and tribes.
“I got involved with USDA Tribal Relations at the national FFA convention, when different Indian tribes across the country presented blankets to the national officers,” he says. “Later, I got a call saying they wanted my advisor Jason and I to come serve on the Native Voices board in D.C. A lot of schools throughout the country, especially on Indian reservations, don’t have FFA or ag programs. We’re trying to get it in more schools, and they asked me to come talk about my FFA experience.”
Ridge was there when President Obama met with chiefs of different tribes.
“It was surreal. I was very proud and happy,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘How on earth did I get to do this?’ No one expects to get called to serve in D.C.”
White House Champion of Change
In October 2012, Ridge returned to D.C. after being named a White House Champion of Change. He spoke on a panel with 11 other Champions of Change chosen from across the nation about current issues, including diversity, education and agriculture.
“We spoke in front of about 100 people with moderators asking us questions, and it streamed live online,” Ridge says. “My whole FFA chapter was involved and was watching. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I met so many influential people, including a member of the president’s cabinet.”
Ridge was nominated for the honor by his ag teachers, including McPeak, who went with him to D.C. He was selected for his outstanding community service efforts.
“As a freshman, Ridge helped with our FFA senior citizens lawn mowing program, and by the time he was a senior, he was running that program,” McPeak says. “Ridge was also on the ground level of a vital fruit and vegetable nutrition program made possible through our FFA community garden. Both programs are still successfully operating today.”
Ridge says even though he worked hard, he gained much more than he gave by helping the elderly.
“There are stereotypes between teenagers and seniors – the two groups don’t really associate with one another,” he says. “I wanted to break down those barriers, because there are no better people to learn from than the elders of your community.”
After mowing, Ridge says many seniors would sit and talk with him over lemonade and cookies. He also enjoyed delivering produce from his chapter’s community garden to the Checotah Senior Center each week.
“That’s where the real fun began. I never thought I’d see two 90-year-old women fight over the last zucchini, but I did,” he says, laughing. “One lady would always meet us outside in the parking lot so she could get first pick of the watermelons. It really bridged the gap between seniors and teens.”
Ridge is majoring in English at OSU and hopes to go to law school before returning to Checotah to serve his neighbors.
“Small towns often get a bad rap, but it was extremely beneficial to grow up in Checotah,” he says. “I want my future family to have the privilege of living there as well. There is a network of people who will be there for you in a second if you need them.”
Ridge’s dedication to service helped him become a Coca-Cola Scholar, which is helping him pay for college. He was one of 50 recipients selected nationwide.
Ridge plans to visit his senior citizen friends back at home on his college breaks.
“There’s Betty and Dora … I can name them all,” he says, chuckling. “I learned a lot from serving them, and I’m much happier because of it. I’m very blessed.”
– Jessica Mozo