At the 78th Annual State 4-H Congress in Atlanta, Jack Williams, received his Master 4-H’er status along with a 4-H Project Achievement Award for his Forest Resources and Wood Sciences presentation. The event signified a celebration of Georgia 4-H youth for their philanthropy and hard work. For Jack, this event meant much more than that.
Jack Williams is the son of Brad and T’Neil Williams. He has one little brother, Sam. Jack is 16-years-old and in the 11th grade. He has been homeschooled for his entire education. This non-traditional upbringing is a result of Jack’s struggles with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and anxiety.
In the third grade, Jack’s teacher began to notice the same symptoms his mother had pointed out years before.
“She pushed for his testing. He was diagnosed with processing disorders: dyslexia and dysgraphia. I decided to continue to homeschool him and learn all I could about dyslexia and dysgraphia,” T’Neil explains. “I felt that we could give him one-on-one attention to help him. I had to learn a new way to teach him things because traditional methods did not work for him. This is not just having letters and numbers reversed; it is the way his brain interprets written language and processes it. There is almost a disconnect between the brain, eyes, and paper. Jack would tell me the words would not be still or that letters were moving or just gone.”
However, with the help of his teachers, family, 4-H agent, and his own determination, Jack has persevered and excelled academically and socially.
“This was frustrating for both of us. We eventually got it down. He still struggles, but has become more comfortable being his own advocate.”
Jack’s involvement in 4-H started when he was invited to a cooking club in the summer before the fifth grade. He loved it. Jeffery Burke, the then 4-H agent, and Leslie Burke, the 4-H assistant, got to know Jack and introduced him to 4-H activities. His mom then made District Project Achievement (a 4-H project) a requirement in her son’s homeschool program.
“I knew how important researching a topic, learning about it and reporting about it was. Public speaking is very important. It is a skill that kids need. They need to be able to talk to adults and their peers, so I made him. He started to compete in the sixth grade on the county level.”
The process of becoming a Master 4-H’er is lengthy and labor intensive. Jack has had to “develop a portfolio” and present it. In this portfolio, he lists project work, achievements, 4-H activities, and community service. Youth competing in the state-level Senior Project Achievement present 10- to 12-minute presentations in their various project areas. Participants also conduct an interview with judges to discuss their year-long project and review their portfolio. A cumulative score of each event determines the winners.
Jack chose the topic “To Burn or Not to Burn” for his project. His work highlights the importance of prescribed burning and the benefits to the land and animals that live on it. He has gone through a year of building his 4-H resume, or portfolio, for this specific topic. He has done interviews, community service, 4-H projects, and gone to meetings.
“This has been my project area since seventh grade. I have made changes to it over the years but stuck with what I liked to learn about. I’ve learned a ton; what I learned most was that I like to learn. This project has been my focus for what seems like forever,” Jack says. “I have given so many hours to it. In the last three months, I would say I have spent over 500 hours practicing for this. I might have been packing, writing thank-you notes, or maybe doing mock interviews, but I have been focused on this.
“I just started this because I liked being outside and playing in the woods and with sticks, but I learned about the economic impact these sticks have on Georgia and how important it is to properly care for our lands.”
Jack feels like the public speaking portion of his project alone has been years in the making. He recalls his first experience with public speaking at another 4-H event in the sixth grade. His favorite volunteer, Seth Thompson, who also has dyslexia, helped him prepare.
“Public speaking, I did not like it at all. He and I went over my speech several times. He does it with everyone. He had ways to help me better focus and remember things because he knew what I was dealing with.”
When Jack’s first public speech started to go south, Thompson gave him words of encouragement that have stayed with him to this day. “Mr. Seth told me to never give up. I might be different but I was special. I just had to do it my way. Each time I stand up to talk, I have him in my head reminding me of that.”
Thompson has not been Jack’s only advocate in the 4-H community. He credits his 4-H agent, Jakyn Tyson, for helping him in many ways. Through patience and innovation, the duo find ways to put Jack’s ideas on paper.
“She just makes me comfortable. I don’t worry when talking to her,” Jack continued. “She has prepared me for my interviews. Sometimes talking to adults is not easy or fun. She, other than my mama, is my biggest cheerleader and always encourages me to keep going.”
This encouragement has motivated Jack to branch out, meet new people, and actually look forward to doing it.
While working on his project “To Burn or Not to Burn,” Jack networked with some important mentors.
Doug Claxton, ranger with Georgia Forestry Commission in Swainsboro, shared details about burn plans for landowners and the effects of not burning on land, and Dean McNure with Grande Creek Timber Company let Jack shadow him and learn about “timber tracks” and what damage insects can do to timber.
Jessica Baugh with Interfor in Nunez helped Jack make many connections in the lumber industry. He was able to attend a procurement meeting, tour parts of the mill, and see the process of trees becoming lumber and how the forestry industry is important to Georgia.
“There have been so many men and women in the forestry industry who have helped me just by letting me ask them questions and showing me different things.”
Brad, Jack’s dad, works in the maintenance department at Interfor. “He is who first got me to love the outdoors and taught me to carve my first stick and wooden bowl. He I think also has dyslexia but is the smartest man I know. He can do anything.”
All of his hard work seems to have paid off. Jack says he is excited about his accomplishment and newfound confidence. Through trial and error, Jack has reached his goal, yet he doesn’t plan on stopping there. He started dual-enrollment classes at Southeastern Technical College this semester and has an ultimate goal this year to become a “double Master 4-H’er” by returning to State Congress next year. He is heading to the National Congress in November.
As for his involvement in 4-H, Jack and his parents hope to continue it for years to come.
“I love 4-H! I am glad now that my mama made me do it,” Jack said. “It is where I have met my closest friends and adults that have taught me so much. The 4-H Motto is ‘Making the best Better,’ and they have made me a better version of myself.”