By TIM ALEXANDER
STREATOR, Ill. — A classmates’ stolen truck inspired the Streator, Ill., High School FFA chapter to develop a presentation on semi truck safety and operation. During the 2020 National FFA Convention, the members were rewarded for their efforts with a Premier Chapter: Strengthening Agriculture first-place award and recognition on a national level.
According to chapter advisor Riley Hintzsche, after a Streator FFA alumni’s barn was damaged by a person wielding a stolen semi tractor a couple of years ago, members wanted to do something about the damage the stolen truck left in its wake. As a result, the members developed “Becoming Semi Aware,” a program that taught members and driver’s education students about how they could remain safe while being around, operating or working on the massive vehicles — some of which operate on roads with as much as 80,000 or more pounds of freight in tow.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on the possibility of a live, in-person 2020 National FFA Convention, project presenters Alex Austin, a sophomore, and Jeniece White, a junior, were able to offer the program to the convention’s judging panel in a virtual setting.
“We have a lot of semis that come in and out of Streator and since driver’s education students are now learning about semis and we have ag students who are around a lot of heavy machinery in our community, we thought it would be useful,” said Austin, who serves as plot manager for Streator FFA.
“A big part of why we started this project is because one of our alumni members had his barn crashed into by a driver who had stolen the semi,” added White, who is chapter vice-president. “That’s when we realized the importance of being able to educate members and drivers-ed students about semi safety.”
Chapter members on the Streator FFA officer team worked for a couple of months to gather data and speak to experts before they could assimilate the sources of information into a presentation form. “The officer team did a lot of research, saw videos and developed a plan to teach students about blind spots,” Hintzsche said. “The data that we actually used in the presentation — such as 92 percent of kids have never been around a semi and 98 percent have never been in a semi — was collected by individual students.”
The presentation also documented the distance a fully-loaded semi traveling at 65 mph requires to come to a complete stop. The answer: around 350 feet. As part of the students’ video presentation, that distance was marked off in the Streator High School parking lot and members were asked to walk to the end of the line in order to fully appreciate the physics.
While both Austin and White lament not being able to accept Streator’s Premier Chapter FFA award onstage and in-person in Indianapolis, the young ladies accept the realities and necessities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including restricting large gatherings and travel.
“I guess maybe all students and FFA members can back me up on this one, just the fact that we do feel like we are being cheated out of (a lot of) experiences and fun activities,” said Austin. “But a bright spot is that all the chapters and FFA members are learning innovative ways to do activities that are Covid-safe while still being able to virtually get together even though there is a pandemic going on.”
White said she believes “everything happens for a reason” and looks forward to a chance to “return” to Indianapolis in 2021 and defend Sreator FFA’s Premier Chapter award. She added that COVID-19 health rules were adhered to during the production of the chapter’s award-winning presentation, including maintaining a personal distance of six feet during the recording of its video segments.
Hintzsche described the judges’ acknowledgement of Streator FFA as Premium Chapter: Strengthening Agricultural winner as “extremely emotional and very exciting,” considering that out of 7,349 national FFA chapters just three are chosen as finalists for the award.
“The entire award area goes back to an application the kids write and submit at the end of the year and it has to go through multiple steps of judging,” he said. “It’s kind of overwhelming to watch it go through the stages of judging and be told that your chapter is a top finalist; that’s very exciting.”
National FFA recognizes the top chapters with innovative activities in each of the three divisions: growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture. Chapters that receive three-star ratings during judging are eligible to compete for the premier chapter awards. Ten FFA chapters competed in a virtual presentation for the honor. Streator FFA was recognized as the winner during the fifth general session, held virtually, on Thursday, Oct. 29.
John Deere sponsors the National Chapter Award program.