My FFA Story: Giving Back Comes Full Circle

Christian MacKinnon, Elanco Animal Health

“We’d like for you to change the lives of inner-city kids using agriculture and leadership through FFA.”

In my mind, this request seemed incredible as I contemplated becoming the agriculture teacher at Indianapolis’ STAR Academy in 1997. How could I have such an impact? Was I actually prepared to do something that seemed so challenging?

It turns out that preparation began in 1986 when I showed up for Don Haberlin’s Fundamentals of Agriculture class.

I’ll be honest: the only leadership I had shown up to that point in my life was leading my yearling Holstein heifer around the show ring at the county fair. But something was different in Mr. Haberlin’s class. I could tell early on that Mr. Haberlin cared – especially if you cared about your own growth. Something about it quickly told me that wanted to be a leader in FFA and ag.

But there was a problem: I didn’t have the slightest clue how. Fortunately, “Hab” did.

Hab pushed me outside my comfort zone as both a student and chapter officer. He knew true leadership was gained through experience. In his world, that meant taking on competitive leadership and livestock events. I jumped in quickly, though maybe too quickly. For two months during my freshman year, Hab coached my preparations for the district freshman public speaking career development event. I had the speech memorized forward and backward so well I could picture the awards ceremony before I ever competed – complete with my name being read as they announced the winner. You can guess where that humility lead me.

Second place.

I didn’t know it then, but I do now. Hab and FFA were preparing me for the future.

Later that spring I finished in the top group for Star Greenhand, but didn’t win. I was down and out, and contemplated my sophomore year plans. Maybe FFA wasn’t so important. Maybe I’d do something different.

Had it not been for Hab’s care and coaching, I might have taken a back seat in the chapter. But with each loss Hab showed me the importance of never giving up and giving your best. He challenged me to take on the next task. Above all, it was a lesson learned: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Hab knew I cared. He made sure I did.

I went on to be a state officer, won a national proficiency award, and was the District Star Farmer in 1989. All of those accomplishments guided me to that day at STAR Academy. But none of them topped my experience teaching at STAR after I took on that task of changing the lives of students – a time in my life that would have never happened without the lessons of perseverance and commitment.

As an ag teacher at STAR, I saw students who arrived in my classroom weak-minded soar to become community leaders, homeless kids win scholarships to college, and fiery-unfocused students become district and state officers. Many have now led organizations, businesses, and classrooms. All of them had one thing in common: they all cared enough to battle through the unknown and build their hidden talents. And those students helped me realize my life’s why: “To help others be more effective, so they can achieve they why and live who they were created to be.”

In a way, it was a full circle experience when I said during a speech “I just want to give back” without really knowing what I meant at the time as a junior in high school.

I owe a big part of who I am and many of my experiences to FFA, Hab and teaching at STAR Academy. If you were to tell me my Greenhand self about all of the the people I would connect with, all of the places I would go, and all of the lessons l would learn before leaving high school, I would have said, “Impossible!”

But today I can earnestly share, “I believe I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.”

Christian MacKinnon currently works at Elanco and serves its customers by facilitating leadership training and coaching.