McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

April 23, 2013

Canadian 4-H Club member Elisabeth Willis is more than one in a million — She’s one in six million.

By James Beaty
Senior Editor

McALESTER — Canadian 4-H Club member Elisabeth Willis is more than one in a million. She’s one in six million.

4-H, which is called the nation’s largest youth development organization, has more than six million members — with 4-H clubs in areas ranging from rural farming and ranching areas to urban neighborhoods.

Willis, who is a junior and 4-H Club member at Canadian High School, received the 4-H Club’s prestigious National Youth in Action Award on Thursday night during a gala event in New York City.

Willis won the first-place honors from among three finalists, with the other two finalists from Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

Following her heart led Willis all the way to New York so she could accept the award in person.

“It feels incredible,” Willis said in a phone conversation with the News-Capital on Thursday, before she received the award.

Willis spoke of her surprise upon learning she won the honor.

“It’s very dear to my heart,” she said.

Willis won the award largely for her work to help raise funds for the Therapeutic Equestrian Association of McAlester. TEAM operates at the Pittsburg County Fairgrounds under the leadership of Executive Director Mandy Carter. It’s dedicated to helping those with special needs or challenges gain self-confidence and improve life skills through interacting with horses and other team volunteers.

Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist Tom Foreman, with CNN, hosted the awards ceremony in New York.

Also receiving honors during the gala were Tractor Supply Co., represented by TSC President Gregory A. Sandfort, which received the Corporate Leadership Award, and Dr. Temple Grandin, of New Hampshire. Grandin received the Distinguished Alumni Medallion for working with families dealing with autism and for the design of humane animal-handling facilities.

Willis, who sings with her sister, Rebekah Willis, in a duo called the Willis Sisters, has organized musical fund-raisers featuring current and former 4-H Club members, performing at the Pittsburg County Fairgrounds to benefit TEAM.

She’s raised more than $10,000, according to information from the 4-H Club’s national organization.

Elisabeth Willis said she wanted to held TEAM because it’s a program to benefit individuals facing special challenges.

“Not everybody was as blessed as I am,” she said.

Willis faced a tight schedule Thursday, meeting with 4-H representatives helping her prepare for the big evening.

Accompanying her on the trip to New York were her parents, Gary and Rachel Willis, and Mike Carter, who is the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension educator in Pittsburg County.

“We just met with the National 4-H Council director,” Mike Carter said Thursday.

Elisabeth Willis has focused on the performing arts through her 4-H Club activities, and Carter is pleased with how far she’s carried it.

“Elisabeth has always seen the big picture,” he said. “She found a way to give back to the community,”

“She has used her project work and developed the music festival in McAlester, and raised enough money for a classroom,” Carter said. Plans call for the classroom to be constructed so students participating in TEAM will have a site to do class work, he said.

Carter credited Willis with helping keep TEAM going for three years through her fund-raising efforts.

TEAM Executive Director Mandy Carter said Elisabeth Willis has had a huge impact on the program.

“She started as a volunteer and made a big difference there,” Mandy Carter said.

“Her taking time to organize the music festival has helped increase awareness of our program and has given motivation for us to continue doing what we do. Her willingness to put the time into it and to do what she did gave us a boost and kept us going.

“She’s had a big impact in a lot of ways.”

Willis planned to spread the word about TEAM during her trip to New York City.

“She’s wanting to bring more awareness to TEAM,” Mike Carter said. “She’s passionate about it.”

Willis also received a national 4-H award from Prudential this year. She plays on the Lady Cougars basketball team, heads Teens for Christ in Canadian and is on the worship team for the Northside Assembly of God Church, said her father, Gary Willis.

Her mother, Rachel Willis, said she’s proud of both of her daughters. Elisabeth’s sister, Rebekah, is attending college at Southwest Christian University and didn’t get to make the trip.

“They’re doing what we trained them to do, giving the glory back to Jesus, giving the glory to God,” Rachel Willis said.

Through raising money for TEAM and winning national honors, Willis has shown what young people can do to help a cause in which they believe.

“She wants to encourage other 4H Club members to do the same,” Mike Carter said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

For more on this story, see the print or electronic editions of the McAlester News-Capital. Click here for print edition home delivery or click here to see the Smart Edition for your computer, tablet, e-reader or smartphone.