By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Welcome to Third Thursdays! This series—published in the Birmingham Times on the third Thursday of every month—highlights area citizens who overcome odds to make a difference in their own lives or those who make a difference in the lives of others.
Once shy and soft-spoken, 17-year-old Kenneth Reese now addresses large crowds and local governments and organizations. He credits his communication skills to Alabama 4-H, for which he was elected the first African American state ambassador president last summer.
“I used to be really nervous and shy to compete or speak, he said. “4-H … brought that confidence out of me. It’s helped me see leadership on a new level and helped push me and develop my communication skills.”
Alabama 4-H is a youth development organization that seeks to empower young people and equip them with the skills to lead their communities, state, nation, and even the world. Open to youth ages 9 through 18, the group exists in all 67 Alabama counties and is the largest youth development program in the state, with more than 178,000 young people reached each year.
Elected as the first African American president of the statewide organization, Reese said, “shows how the world is changing and that we’re getting afforded more opportunities; … it shows how we can achieve and that we can do anything we put our minds to.”
Reese became a state ambassador in 2018 and president of the state ambassadors in July 2019. He is aware that he has blazed a trail for other young African American boys and girls by being the first to compete and place at a national level and become the first African American to serve as 4-H state ambassador president.
“My whole mission is to show the endless opportunities within 4-H, [to] show young African Americans that, even though this is a predominately white organization, anybody is welcome, and anybody can achieve anything,” he said.
As state ambassador president, Reese is responsible for planning the state leadership conference along with the other 22 Alabama 4-H ambassadors. He also serves as a representative at different events and is on the 4-H state advisory council. Currently, he is looking forward to the midwinter state conference at the 4-H Center in Columbiana, Ala., which will take place from January 31 to February 2.
“It’s a youth leadership conference for [the entire] state of Alabama,” Reese explained. “[Members] participate in different workshops that will help them gain leadership and communication skills. We’ll have cooking and dance workshops, [in addition to] a county showcase, which will be like a career fair where kids get to learn about different programs and career paths popular in their counties and communities.”
Reese is currently a senior at Shades Valley High School, where he is a part of the Jefferson County Academy of Business and Finance; a member of the student council; a student ambassador and a member of the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) club. He attended Hueytown Elementary and Middle schools, where he played football and ran track. While in elementary school, he joined his first 4-H club.
“It was interesting,” he said. “We had to join a club to get ready for middle school because that’s where they offer FBLA. We would have an hour of free time before school let out, and you could choose a club to join. I randomly picked 4-H, and it just grew from there.”
In middle school, Reese took 4-H seriously and participated in several county competitions and a few workshops focused on healthy living: “[We had a choice between] learning how to make healthier options to eat or improving your physical fitness,” he said.
Reese’s mother, Verciyla, is a long-time 4-H member, and she started the Holy Family 4-H club in Ensley when Reese was in fifth grade. Reese remains a part of his mother’s club even while he serves as a state ambassador. Their club has won numerous awards, including 4-H Club of the Year and the 4-H Community Service Award, and has sent students to state- and national-level competitions. Verciyla has been named 4-H Leader of the Year, and Reese has won his share of awards on the state and national levels.
“A lot of the awards I’ve won are for cooking,” he said. “I’ve [participated in] the junior bread exhibit, egg-and-poultry competitions, cooking demonstrations, and things like that. I remember the first competition I was in: I was 10, it was very new to me, and I had to do something I had never done before. I had to present [a dish] that I made to about three judges and explain the health benefits to them.
“I won the egg-and-poultry competition on the state level, so I had to take that dish, demonstrate it again, come up with a theme, and prepare it for a panel of judges in Louisville, Ky., where winners from each state were able to come and compete. I prepared a frittata, which is like an open-faced omelet, and I had an Italian theme. … It was very intense. I wanted to win first but being able to place [third] on the national level was still very rewarding.”
Reese said his mother taught him how to cook.
“She does most of the cooking around the house,” he said. “I would watch her cook, and then sometimes I would get in the kitchen and help her. She taught me different recipes, and eventually I started trying it on my own.”
Reese participated in his last 4-H cooking competition in 2017. Since then, he has set his sights on leadership and focused on his governing roles. He worked his way up through the organization, serving as president of the Jefferson County region of 4-H and vice president of his mom’s 4-H club.
On his way to becoming a state ambassador, he attended different conferences and saw state leaders from other organizations before submitting an online application and interviewing at Auburn University for the role. The process opened his eyes to the myriad opportunities available through 4-H.
“I was able to see the different programs and opportunities that 4-H has, and I was able to venture from cooking into environmental sciences and more into leadership,” Reese said.
During his second year as an ambassador, Reese was informed that he could run for state offices, such as president, vice president, secretary, and assistant secretary. He had his sights set on president and competed with two others in front of state advisors and the ambassador team.
“My presentation was [entitled], ‘Endless Opportunities for 4-H,’ and that is the motto I follow,” he said.
Reese not only impressed the judges but also made his mother proud.
“He is just phenomenal,” said Verciyla. “As a parent and as his club leader, it’s been truly amazing to see his journey from where he was to where he is now. It’s just been great to watch.”
National 4-H is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); in Alabama, the organization is also under Auburn University, Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, and Tuskegee University. There are 4-H organizations in more than 50 countries and nearly six million active participants; the Alabama group is more than 100 years old.
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