Advocacy and a Panda Bear?

If you’ve known me for a very long time, you giggled when you read this because you know this story. This video of Tian Tian has popped up all over social media this weekend, the weekend of the Blizzard Jonas.

Tian Tian the panda bear living at the National Zoo in Washington DC

panda in snow

Not so strangely, this video took me back to my start in advocacy.

I love panda bears. Most people who know me know that. Some even know when and where the love affair began. It began during 4-H Citizenship Washington Focus (CWF), July 1978.

CWF was my first trip to Washington DC. I was with a group of about 40 4-H kids from across Arkansas. It was a really big deal for kids from Rose Bud, Arkansas to get to do something like that. It was a big deal for most of the kids on our trip. I have always loved United States history. I have always enjoyed politics, too. Our trip to Washington DC was a combination of sightseeing, fun, education and advocacy in action. We saw all the Washington highlights and even had a picnic at George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon. I saw my first Broadway Show, “Annie.”  We had classes on how government works. We visited The Hill and met our Congressman and Senators. The great Arkansas Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt always had his picture made  with the 4-H kids on the United States Capitol steps.

AR Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt and and Congressman Ray Thornton, United States Capitol 1978
AR Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt and and Congressman Ray Thornton, United States Capitol 1978

He led us in calling the Hogs, where else but on the United States Capitol steps! My advocacy education started in 4-H. My CWF trip inspired me and gave me a foundation for future advocacy work. A lot of what I know how to do is because of 4-H.

One of our outings was to the National Zoo. If memory serves me correctly, we had not had the panda bears for long at that time. They were a gift from China. It was all over our four television stations (three networks and the education station) and the newspaper.  I was fascinated with them.  I think their names were Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing. I still have pictures somewhere, and I bought a panda bear for souvenir and named it Emo.

Emo is in the center. Just a few from my collection.
Emo is in the center. Just a few from my collection.

For many years, friends and family gave me all kinds of panda paraphernalia. You might be surprised what comes in panda.  Most of it resides in tubs in my basement. I can’t bring myself to part with those memories.

Then, my second trip to Washington DC was as an adult chaperon. That’s another reason the video caught my attention. My friend Dennis Millard and I were the two Extension agents sent to chaperon this group of 12 to 14-year-old 4-H youth on this particular trip. We did many of the same activities as when I had gone – really just a few years before. I had known Dennis but when you spend a week chaperoning 40 tweens on a trip, you really get to know someone. Dennis became a dear friend.  I wanted to go see the panda bears and that wasn’t on the top of his list so he teased me that the panda bears had died and there was no need to go and see them. He was a big joker and loved to tease people. He went with me though. When we got there, the panda bears were asleep, on their backs with their feet and legs straight up in the air. They looked like they were dead. He couldn’t have scripted it better.  He laughed hysterically. He thought it was so funny.  Almost every time I saw Dennis, he mentioned those panda bears! My friend Dennis passed away from a sudden heart attack a few weeks ago. I wanted to share that story in memory of him. He loved to laugh and he would be laughing so hard right now.

I get to go to DC more often now. I am always in awe. And I always feel privileged to be able to use my voice to share our story, the stories of others who maybe cannot share their own stories, or just to voice my concerns whatever they may be. Often I am reminded of those first trips and think of the many 4-H leaders, 4-H friends and 4-H Extension agents who so impacted my life. And I realize how very blessed I am to have grown up in rural White County, Arkansas and live in the United States of America.

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