by Deb Seminary
Beth Bakke Stenehjem lives life to the fullest, and makes sure those around her do the same. Whether she is volunteering at Ski for Light, a four day down-hill and cross-country skiing event for individuals who are visually impaired or mobility impaired, planning an event for the North Dakota FFA Foundation or hosting a party at her home, she just wants everyone to have a good time.
Beth heard about Ski for Light, held in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she worked at the North Dakota Vision Services School for the Blind in Grand Forks. Ski for Light not only attracts participants from North Dakota, but individuals from all over the United States and the world. “Some of the people may be in a wheelchair or missing a limb,” she said. “Others are visually impaired or have some other type of disability. It is run by volunteers and they are all amazing.”Beth is a cross country ski guide and has worked with the same individual for nine of the ten years she has volunteered for the event. “His name is Donnie and he is huge,” she said. “So when he goes down and we have to get him back up, it is very interesting. Donnie is partially sighted, so we just ski slow and talk.”
She said the Ski for Light event is a week full of fun and humor, “It is all adults and we have so much fun. They build bonfires, have snow shoeing, snowmobile rides, and go out dancing at night,” said Beth. “There was one night we were out and I saw this guy who had been hit by a car. He is visually impaired and I asked him if he was all right. He said, in a deadpan voice, ‘I didn’t see ‘er coming.’ It is the most fun week I spend all year.”
Beth’s passion for helping others does not stop at Ski for Light. Another opportunity to help someone came up while Beth worked at the School for the Blind. She gave her coworker, Donna Iszler, a ride to work every day and soon learned Donna was doing self-dialysis three or four times a day. “She is blind,” said Beth. “It was crazy. One day she got some air bubbles in it and thought she was having a heart attack. That was when I decided I had to help her.”
Donna was put on a list for a new kidney in August 2000. The wait could have been up to five years, so Beth offered one of her kidneys. They were not the same blood type, but the procedure went fine and Donna is now doing great. The two women stay in contact, and usually talk after Donna goes in for her annual checkup, right around the April 25 anniversary of the operation .
Beth attended NDSU for English Education and taught English in McClusky for a year. But she soon felt a different career pull. She had worked part-time in various libraries and loved the library environment, so she went back to UND and got her library science degree. “I worked in Langdon for two years, then my husband, Wayne, and I got married,” she said. “I went to the School for the Blind and worked in the library, then moved to Hillsboro, taught English and worked in the library there. Then I returned to the School for the Blind and became the director of the Media Center. When Wayne was elected (Attorney General), we moved to Bismarck and it was so hard to leave that job.”
But Beth would soon find a job that combined her love of helping others and her agricultural background. Beth is from Alkabo, a small town in the northwestern corner of the state. She lived on a farm and was really involved with Future Farmers of America ( FFA, see end of story ) in high school. “I was the first female president,” she said. “I loved it, and we had great advisors. That was when girls were just starting to take Ag classes instead of Home Economics. It was nice because I wanted to learn how to do welding and carpentry.”
That FFA background now serves her well in her position as the Executive Director of the North Dakota FFA Foundation. The Foundation was started in 1980 and provides funds for career development events, scholarships, chapter activities as well as grants for community service work.
Beth’s responsibilities include programming and fundraising for the Foundation. She travels to events throughout the state, which allows her to keep in touch with sponsors, donors and prospective donors, as well as chapter advisors. “It’s important for us to know what the advisors want,” she explained. “If I am going to raise money for something, I want to make sure it is a good idea. I love FFA and I love working with kids and with Ag people because they are just the nicest people ever.”
Some of the specific programs the Foundation organizes help students gain valuable, real-life experience, “The Foundation was lucky because it inherited a farm where we cash rent some of it and crop share the rest. The funds the Foundation gets are used for ‘fun’ things,” says Beth. “We give money to students who are starting a Supervised Agriculture Experience (SAE), which is like a job. They may be raising cattle or goats, and they can buy a new calf or goat with the funds they receive. We have a lot of production students who put in for this funding and we focus on production because the man that gave us the farm was in production agriculture. But sometimes we will have someone who mows lawns and we can give them money for a new lawn mower. We had someone who wanted to go into the sheep shearing business so he got money to buy the equipment. Their advisor watches closely to make sure the money is spent where it is supposed to be spent.”
Other programs allow people to give by supporting the students involved in the organization. “We also have a program where people donate $57 to buy an FFA jacket for a student . Last year we gave out 200 jackets. The people who give to this program, give every year. They get a thank you from the recipient and the kids get so excited. Last year, we had a student who kept the name of the donor in her jacket pocket and she actually met them at the state convention and was able to thank them in person.”
FFA is offered as part of the high school curriculum and there are over 4,500 students involved across the state. Currently, North Dakota has the most FFA students per capita in the nation. There are 77 chapters, and in some small towns, like Scranton and Colfax, almost every kid is in FFA. “Minot has four instructors and they have a huge FFA chapter ,” said Beth. “They have a teacher that is amazing with plants, so they have a ton of kids in the horticulture class who bring many plants to the state fair. It is so different from the Ag classes I took that were mostly carpentry and welding.”
FFA members must be enrolled in an Ag education class to be a part of the organization. These classes include horticulture, welding, veterinary science and many more options. “Those Ag education classes are good for everyone to take, especially if they live in a rural area,” said Beth. “They teach a lot of leadership skills, which any kid needs. One of our career development events is a job interview. Every kid should do this because we all have to interview for a job sooner or later.”Beth also continues to find a variety of ways to give back outside of her job, including walking in four Avon Walks for Breast Cancer. The Avon Walk is a 39-mile weekend event held in eight different cities throughout the country. “My friend Lisa and I have walked in Washington D.C., Boston and Santa Barbara twice and raised over $15,000 for those races,” she said. “Two years ago we had seven girlfriends in Santa Barbara and all together we raised over $15,000 just for that race. My mom and two aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer, plus we all have friends that have been affected by it. You have to raise $1800 to walk, and I like that. If you’re going to have a fundraiser, make it good. Plus, Avon makes it easy to give. ”
Beth is also one of the individuals responsible for bringing the IMPACT self-defense program, www.ndimpact.org, to Bismarck. IMPACT is a weekend course that not only instructs women on how to physically defend themselves, but teaches them to be assertive enough to speak up if a comment or gesture is unsuitable for a situation. The course talks about using confidence and verbal skills to get out of a situation before resorting to physical fighting.
Beth and Wayne also like to travel and have been to Rome, Paris and other locations in Europe. “Last year my niece lived with us because her parents moved out of town and it was her senior year,” said Beth. “We told her if she wants to go to Europe, we would take her. We ended up taking her and her cousin to Paris and we had so much fun.”
However, if you travel with Beth, she has one small stipulation to keep the trip a positive experience. “We have these coupons that are kind of a joke, but not really. They are ‘complaint coupons’ and you only get three. If you use all of them, you go home! So, no complaining is the key. If you’re going to spend the money to go someplace, I don’t want to spend my time listening to someone complain. You should be making memories.”
The couple is also known for their hospitality throughout the year. “We have always liked to have friends over, even in Grand Forks where we had a very small house,” said Beth. “Then we moved here and now we have more room. We always had people over for the 4th of July, because it was such a great place to watch the fireworks, and Wayne keeps adding things to keep it fun. We usually do Thanksgiving at our house, too. We make the turkey, potatoes and stuffing then everyone brings something and it just works out. Thanksgiving is one of those holidays where sometimes people have to work that Friday and they can’t always be with family. I never want people to think, ‘I wish I had someone to spend it with.’ There was a guy I met on the plane, and he had such a great story, I had to ask him to Thanksgiving.”One of Beth’s hobby’s includes photography which she also likes to share with others. Her Facebook friends enjoy Wayne’s sunset, and sometimes sunrise, shots they post. “Back when I had my 110 camera, my mom would say, ‘You have to quit taking pictures, it is costing a fortune.’ The camera is a way to start a conversation. With my job I get to take pictures of the kids and they will pose. And those sunset photos, we have such gorgeous sunsets in North Dakota and because of where we live, every night is like a little celebration.”
And that is just what Beth likes to focus on, celebrating life one day at a time while sharing it with others.
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WHAT IS FFA? (From the National FFA website)
“Future Farmers of America” was founded by a group of young farmers 1928. Their mission was to prepare future generations for the challenges of feeding a growing population. They taught us that agriculture is more than planting and harvesting – it’s a science, it’s a business and it’s an art.
FFA continues to help the next generation rise up to meet those challenges by helping its members to develop their own unique talents and explore their interests in a broad range of career pathways.
So today, we are still the Future Farmers of America. But, we are the Future Biologists, Future Chemists, Future Veterinarians, Future Engineers and Future Entrepreneurs of America, too.
For more information or to donate, go to ndffafoundation.com