Leighton James is living proof that you get out of FFA what you put into it. The Corpus Christi, Texas FFA member graduated third in her class from Tuloso-Midway High School in May and is attending Texas A&M University with $18,000 in college scholarships courtesy of FFA.
“I give FFA all the credit for preparing me for college and the business world,” says 18-year-old Leighton, the oldest of nine brothers and sisters. “FFA taught me how to communicate with people. I hear people say FFA is about showing animals, but it’s so much more – there are people in FFA who have never even touched an animal. There really are opportunities for everybody.”
Leighton’s favorite part of FFA is public speaking. She competed in FFA Creed speaking and prepared public speaking throughout high school and even leaned on her speaking skills for a beauty pageant. While many contestants might sing, dance or play an instrument for the talent portion, Leighton gave a motivational speech called “Something to Leave Behind,” and it helped her win the crown at the Nueces County Junior Livestock Show queen contest in 2009.
“My talent was public speaking, and it was a patriotic speech that talked about doing something worthwhile with your life,” Leighton says. “My goal was to be in the top five, and I was shocked when I won because I was a sophomore, and the queen is usually a senior. I received a scholarship, and I got to be in parades and do TV interviews. It was awesome getting to represent our county livestock show and explain to people what it was about.”
“I give FFA all the credit for preparing me for college and the business world.”
Winning the crown wasn’t the only shocker of Leighton’s high school career. She started showing steers in eighth grade, and her freshman year, she snagged the grand champion steer victory at her county livestock show. Her champion steer named Prince later sold for $26,000, which she will use for college.
“I started showing lambs in third grade and switched to steers in eighth grade,” Leighton says. “It was shocking to everyone when I had the grand champion steer because I was new to the competition.”
In June 2010, Leighton was one of 10 Texas FFA members selected from 400 applicants for the Texas FFA Ford Leadership Scholars program, a partnership between the Texas FFA Foundation, Ford Division, and Texas Ford Dealers that gives Texas FFA members opportunities for leadership and community service.
“It was by far the best program I’ve gotten to be involved with through FFA,” Leighton says. “We all met in Austin in July for one week of training, and I learned more about myself in that one week than ever in my life.”
The goal of the training week was to prepare the 10 scholars to create their own community service project in their respective communities. During the week, members created a city park for a small community outside San Antonio, designed a homeless living community for Mobile Loaves & Fishes Inc. (a social outreach ministry for the homeless) in Austin, and visited with a three-star general at Fort Hood.
After that experience, Leighton returned to Corpus Christi and started a tutoring program at a recreation center for kids from low-income families. She recruited tutoring volunteers from area high schools, created schedules and organized the tutoring plan. The program lasted from October 2010 through February 2011 and served about 20 kids in second through fifth grades.
“We helped them with their homework, but we also played basketball, colored and jumped rope with them,” Leighton says. “A lot of the kids had serious issues at home and needed a friend who was stable. Those kids have seen a lot for how little they are. It was so cute because they all called me ‘Coach.’”
In addition to all her other responsibilities, Leighton worked part-time jobs at a barbecue restaurant and a Western apparel store during high school. She also served as her FFA chapter’s president and as district secretary.
After hearing Leighton speak publicly, her high school administrators asked her to be the motivational speaker for incoming freshmen in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“I spoke to them about the difficulties of high school and how they can overcome them,” Leighton says. “And I talked to them about being responsible for their own decisions and not making excuses. Several of their parents came up to me afterward and asked how I learned to speak. I always told them it was through FFA.”
Leighton’s best piece of advice to young FFA members is to educate themselves on every opportunity FFA offers.
“FFA is much more than people think,” she says. “Get involved and stick with it. FFA scholarships are paying for a whole year of my college. All the effort I put into it has really paid off.”
— Jessica Mozo