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Augusta 4-H home school team wins national championship

2011 National Champions
Augusta County 4-H Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Program (WHEP) Team
(Left to right) Coach Doug Harpole, Meredith Persinger, 16, Mark Persinger, 15, Katie Fenneran, 16, Trube Short, 17, Coach Jennifer Mercer

Made up entirely of home school students, the Augusta County 4-H Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Program (WHEP) team stormed the National 4-H Championship competition last week in Little Rock, Arkansas, and became the 2011 National Champions. Beating out 16 other teams from across the country, they provided presentations individually and as a group to secure the top spot.

The home school students who made up the WHEP team were Trube Short, 17, Katie Fenneran, 16, Meredith Persinger, 16, and Mark Persinger, 15.

Their coach, Jennifer Mercer of Augusta County [2], led them to excellence as she has done for years with local students … encouraging, coaching, mentoring, [3] and providing constant presence to the team of four who proudly represented Virginia. Mercer, who is married and the step-mom to a young soldier who served in Iraq [4], has been the long-time 4-H extension agent in the central Shenandoah Valley county of Augusta.

Also coaching the team was 4-H agent Doug Harpole from Fauquier County who was assigned by Virginia State 4-H and Virginia Tech after the Augusta group won the state competition in April.

The group first organized in 2005 as young “Nature Nuts” under the leadership of Mercer who worked with them until 2007 when home school mom Deanna Persinger stepped in. Two years later, when team members decided they wanted to go to Nationals, Mercer was asked to take over again as coach to help them reach the next level of education and competition.

“I had taken them as far as I could, ” Persinger told me. “Jennifer had the expertise to teach them beyond my knowledge of wildlife.”

With help from others in the local home school community, Team WHEP studied all aspects of wildlife habitat and how to offer presentations at competitions. Home school dads Al Bourgeois and David Kocka, biologists with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, expanded the students’ knowledge with educational field trips to study wildlife habitats.

Home school grads who had competed at the National 4-H level in 2005, when the home school Augusta County Envirothon Team took second place in the national competition in West Virginia, lent a hand. Josh Salatin, 23, inspired. Nate Salatin, 25, motivated. Jill Bourgeois Colon-Romero, 23, encouraged.

Mercer, who kept everyone focused and on track by drilling on facts and information, took the team to Maryland for five days to study a variety of wetlands in preparation for the 2011 National Competition. Team members were taught about marshes and learned the various aspects of wetlands management.

Persinger added, “Jennifer knows how to train, how to compare, how to instill the competitiveness, and how to bring out the winning spirit with the kids. She tells them at competitions, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t win. Just go out and have fun.’ ”

On her Facebook page, Mercer posted, “Words cannot express how proud, honored, and humbled I am to have had the opportunity to work with such an incredible group of young people. … Blew the socks off the competition. Gave me the best gift I could ever ask for and the timing could not be better!”

Many in the community got behind the effort to send the WHEP team to Nationals: Shenandoah Harley-Davidson, Skyline Kennel Club, Staunton Foods, Nuckols Gun, Virginia Frame Builders & Supply, James River Equipment, The Meating Place, nTelos, and numerous individuals.

Home schoolers have been high achievers in the Augusta County 4-H program throughout the years, backed by an army of home school parent volunteers. Students have learned leadership through Honors Club, Outdoor Shooting Club, livestock competition, public speaking competition, and national championships.

In 2005, Augusta home school student Nate Salatin became Virginia State 4-H President. After graduation from high school, he joined the United State Marine Corps, was deployed twice to Iraq, and graduated in May 2011 from Virginia Military Institute with the highest GPA in his major and was awarded the Society of Cincinnati Medal, the highest honor bestowed by VMI.

Others have taken their 4-H leadership skills into the community through emergency and rescue services, church work, military service, education, operating small businesses, farming, and politics.

In the central Shenandoah Valley, home schoolers rock the 4-H world. In the words of home school mom Donna Salatin who has four children including Nate, “Home schoolers can do anything if they are willing to work hard at it.”

Lynn Mitchell was a home school mom for 16 years and served as president of Parent Educators of Augusta County Homes (PEACH) as well as newsletter editor and teen coordinator. Her son graduated from James Madison University in Harrisonburg in 2007 with a major in computer science and a minor in English, and her daughter is currently a student at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Class of 2012, majoring in sustainable business.

Cross-posted with additional photos at SWAC Girl [5]