As agricultural professionals, Gayle Holman, Randy Hopkins, Beau Howard, Heather Jackson, Sal Parra and Shaun Ramirez know the work they do in the Central Valley will have an impact on the country — and the world. But as members of the California Agricultural Leadership Program’s Class 46, the group recently stepped outside of its industry’s traditional boundaries to serve in a different way.
Established in 1970 by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, the 16-month program is designed to train agricultural professionals to become leaders within their companies and the industry at large. Each “class” attends monthly leadership seminars at partner universities California Polytechnic State University Pomona, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Fresno State and UC Davis, and participates in national and international seminars.
Notable alumni include Congressman Devin Nunes, former Congressman George Radanovich and former California Secretary of Agriculture, A.G. Kawamura.
The program does not focus on farming or agricultural issues, said Hopkins. Rather, “we go and we learn about ourselves and what each of us can do within our sphere of influence. We learn about communications, history, social issues.”
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In addition to their national seminar in Washington, D.C., Class 46 partnered with Community Medical Centers to deliver medical equipment to a Jordanian hospital. The international service project was the focal point of a 15-day trip to Israel, Greece and Jordan.
Jackson said the international seminar is intended to go “hand-in-hand with the events of the world at the time.”
“We looked to serve those in need,” explained Parra. “Our international trip primarily was based around refugees.”
Holman said Tim Joslin, CEO of Community Medical Centers, suggested the medical mission. Dr. Berj Apkarian, executive director of physician relations at Community Medical Centers and Honorary Consul for the Republic of Armenia, was instrumental in coordinating the delivery of $200,000 worth of donated medical equipment, including ultrasound and EKG machines and dental equipment. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the enormous generosity of Community Medical Centers,” she said.
In October, after months of preparation and coordination — members recalled the many times they met to pack and repack the equipment, which eventually filled 42 suitcases and carry-on bags — Class 46 traveled to the Middle East. The supplies were delivered to a hospital in Madaba, Jordan.
There, they’ll be used to help Syrian refugees as well as rural Jordanians, said Hopkins, adding, “One of the things we found out was that the pressure the refugees have put on the Jordanian government often has impacted the middle class in Jordan as well.”
The class also distributed supplies — blankets, school supplies, sports equipment — to refugee communities.
The trip pushed participants to move beyond their comfort zones and “see things not from a tourist standpoint,” Hopkins said.
“It dawned on us ... you could lose everything in the United States and you’re still an American citizen. If you’re a refugee, you’ve lost everything and have no land to go back to. The little bit of comfort we could provide is a good thing.”
“One big lesson we’ve learned is how big of an impact you can make personally with individuals by seeing them as individuals,” Ramirez added.
Closer to home, Class 46 is renovating and restoring the baseball stadium and field at Firebaugh’s Dunkle Park. The facility, said Ramirez, was built by World War II veterans when they returned from their service. But it has fallen into disrepair and the community — hit hard by the drought and suffering its economic effects — has been unable to renovate it.
“We represent all different parts of the state, but this is the second year in a row Ag Leadership has chosen something based in this area,” Holman said. “Through class discussions we ended up selecting something right here in Fresno County again, which shows how great the need is in this area.”
The class raised money to hire a contractor do some work, including installing a new metal roof, but they, along with community volunteers, did all of the demolition work. “We basically broke it down all the way to the frames and we’re going to build it back up with the wood we can use again,” said Ramirez. Although this winter’s rainstorms have slowed the process, he said, the goal is to have the field ready to be used by youth athletes this spring.
Now that they’ve graduated and Class 47 is in session, the local members of Class 46 said they plan to apply the lessons of the past 16 months to their work in their businesses and communities at large.
Parra is committed to lifting up the youth in his community. “It’s going out to industry and business and getting funds to help support the baseball team, help support other activities that can help kids see beyond the everyday kind of grind, which is hard, living in these impacted communities with the drought and the parents not having employment,” he said. He’s also been hosting talks with students and industry organizations.
Jackson, who had long had the goal of participating in the program, said it gave her “the tool set to ... get into the leadership focus.”
“Programs like Ag Leadership allow some of us who are considered leaders within our industries, or within our companies, to be able to go and actually experience firsthand some of the social problems ... whether it’s the refugees, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter issues in Baltimore ... and then come back to our communities,” said Ramirez.
“Our communities are in their own little bubbles because we’ve got our own issues,” he continued. “We’ve got high unemployment, we’ve got water issues. When some of us come back from these trips we’re able to tell people what they don’t know, because all they got was that one minute sound bite on the news. We can reach out to those in our community and let them know what we’ve seen.”
“The journey doesn’t end here,” added Holman. “Our commitment is just starting.”
The California Agricultural Leadership Program is now accepting applications for Class 48. For more information, visit www.agleaders.org/apply.