Shelly Williams said it was like a dream come true when she had the opportunity to kickstart the Veterinary Science and Future Farmers of America programs at Denmark High School when it opened in 2018.
She worked as a biology teacher before and was excited to build up a program that would put that teaching to practical use for students. When she first started the program, she had no idea what to expect, but as she has worked with the kids at Denmark, she has come to see her time at the school as the highlight of her career.
“I was not prepared for the scope of work,” Williams said. “It just covers so much. But I also wasn’t prepared for how much fun it would be to work with these kids through three years and to build the relationships and see them grow and develop and become like a family and a community. It is extremely fulfilling. I never feel like a single day is wasted.”
As much as she loves the program and FFA, the students at the school love it even more, spending hours even outside of class helping to take care of animals, practicing what they have learned and helping to build up the program.
The passion and hard work of the students and staff have paid off greatly as the program continues to grow. Williams explained that just in the past year, students have begun building a serenity garden on campus for the community, two students started a conservation effort to help save an endangered breed of rabbit, the program opened a doggy daycare for teachers at the school, seniors in the program helped to deliver two baby goats and the school’s senior veterinary science team is heading off to compete for the state FFA title.
This is the third year that the school’s senior team has won its regional competition and moved onto state where they will compete next weekend, and Williams is hopeful this is the year her senior students will take the state title.
“It’s one thing we really focus on here, building the program and reputation of one where people know us in the state,” Williams said.
Williams said that one of the many reasons Denmark’s students perform so well in these competitions is because they have access to a barn, equestrian and veterinary centers at the school.
Dr. Jessica Kirk, a teacher and veterinarian, also trains the senior vet science team while teaching and helping to care for the animals on campus.
“I wish I had a veterinary and little vet school to learn on when I was in high school,” Kirk said. “I think it gives them a unique perspective, and they get to ask a lot of questions they probably wouldn’t be able to ask at other schools because they just don’t have the staff that knows that stuff.”
On top of that, the access to a variety of different animals on campus — chickens, quails, goats, mini horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, geckos, hamsters and tortoises — and learning avenues has generated a variety of different career interests among the program’s nearly 300 students.
Bella Sims, a senior student, is interested in becoming an agriculture teacher in the future, and she is on track to complete the vet science, teaching as a profession and small animal care career pathways this year. Other students have expressed interest in agriculture communications, horticulture, research, genetics, business, sales and more.
“We also have a lot of students who aren’t interested in specifically agriculture but human medicine, so a lot of students want to go into nursing or become medical doctors,” Kirk said. “But here at Denmark, there’s not a whole lot of options for human medicine, so a lot of students will choose to do the vet science class because humans are just animals without tails, so a lot of it coincides.”
Donovan Hemmings, who just began at Denmark this year to teach agriculture and help run the school’s new greenhouse, said that those interested in medicine also tend to lean into the horticulture classes to learn more about how they can use plants to help both humans and animals.
“We just start piecing it together and the kids start bringing it together, and it’s pretty cool,” Hemmings said.
Both Hemmings and Williams agreed that the students at Denmark pretty much run the program, and they are both incredibly proud of the work that they all put into it. Whether they are out at the barn caring for animals, preparing for a competition or working on a new initiative, the students work hard to bring success to the program.
“When I first started working here, [I do] more small animal care, I didn’t know much about livestock, and I’ve learned more from these kids than I thought I would in a short amount of time,” Hemmings said. “From everything about a barn, everything about horses, goats, bunnies. They do their research, and they’re really solid on the ins and outs of especially the livestock. It’s just amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Williams explained that two of the program’s students came up with a plan to begin a new conservation effort, reaching out to a judge with the American Rabbit Breeders Association to bring Silver Marten rabbits to campus. The breed is critically endangered, and the students are now helping to breed the rabbits and sell them to others across the southeast.
They now have five of the rabbits, which are the only ones of their kind in the region.
Hemmings also explained that the students in the program are so dedicated to the animals on campus that when they found out that their goat, Quiver, was pregnant, students started staying late at the barn waiting for her to have her babies.
Sims said they started making little parties of it, bringing out folding chairs to watch movies, eat some pizza and drink hot chocolate while they waited. When it got to be late into the night, Williams would have to come out and tell the kids they needed to go home.
“There were several days when they were doing their watch parties where I had to make threats like, ‘OK, you know the police come by here at 10 and patrol and make sure. You all have to leave; you can’t spend the night,’” she said, laughing.
When Quiver finally did have her babies, Sims and two other senior students helped to deliver them. Staff members supervised the procedure, but Williams said the students cleaned the babies’ faces, make sure the mom fed them and made sure the cords were cut.
Now, the little bucklings, named Apollo and Robin, are 4 weeks old and living in the barn along with Quiver.
“It was really nice to actually be there delivering the babies,” Sims said.
While the students have been working to take care of their new animals, they have also worked over the past few months to create a serenity sensory garden, which Williams said will be open to the community beginning in the spring.
The garden was funded through an FFA grant and is meant to serve as a place on campus for students and community members to relieve some of their anxiety. It will feature a small rock maze, benches, wind chimes and a small garden.
“We’d like the Denmark community families to be able to come out,” Williams said. “Hopefully it will be a good spot for our whole community on every level.”
While community members visit, they may also spot some of the animals or even a dog or two as teachers come to pick up their pets from the program’s new doggy daycare.
The daycare, located near the barn on campus, allows for teachers to drop off their dogs with students in the program for the day, which gives the little pets some time away from home while giving students the opportunity to practice their handling and grooming skills.
Knowing how far the FFA and Vet Science programs have come in only three years, Williams said she is excited to see what the future holds for them and for her students, and she is glad to have been able to start the program from the beginning.
“It’s really the highlight of my teaching career,” Williams said.