HAWKINS — “It doesn’t matter what you look like or what your ethnicity is or anything, you can do anything you want to do as long as you set your mind to it.”
One of the four Hawkins FFA 4G Honey Team members, Jessica Henneous, made this statement to the millions of Americans watching a “Today” show segment that aired Friday morning.
Henneous and her beekeeping teammates Brook Goddard, Rachel Parish and Mackenzie Rutherford were featured for their large honey-making operation, which began from a bee infestation at the Ozarka Spring Water factory in Hawkins.
After trying to relocate the bees, Cheryl Conaway, the quality assurance manager at Ozarka, contacted Matt Byrd, the Hawkins High School agriculture teacher and adviser for the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, to begin a project in which students learn how to become beekeepers.
They established multiple bee colonies and have produced large amounts of honey. Their success includes an overall reserve champion in showmanship award at the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show.
“We thought we were just helping the bee population and Ozarka, and it became huge,” Goddard said.
The team of four appeared on live television Friday in the high school gym among their peers and community members.
“It’s really blended our community well, the industry, our community and our school. We’re like a family and I think everyone knows that,” Byrd said. “That’s just the sense that you get within the community and wherever you go.”
The girls said it definitely makes them proud to be from Hawkins.
“It was really good because everybody, they all support us,” Goddard said. “They were excited for us. It made it easy.”
“Today” producer Rachel Delima was part of a team that filmed the story four weeks ago at the factory and high school workshop. They came back for the live shot Friday.
“The girls are fantastic,” she said. “I’m so happy for them and just to be able to highlight what they’ve achieved. That’s what we do.”
Also on live TV, the students were surprised with $5,000 each in educational scholarships from Ozarka’s parent company, Nestle Waters.
“That’s going to give us a little boost,” Goddard said. “That’s going to kick-start college.”
Adam Gaber, Nestle Waters communication director, said the company wants to support students who demonstrate devotion to their community and environment.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. “The FFA and what it stands for is in keeping with Nestle’s values. Engagement in the community is just a huge part of the values at Nestle.”
Gaber said their team is grateful to have the partnership with FFA showcased on a venue like the “Today” show.
Nestle Waters also gave a $10,000 grant to the Hawkins FFA program. Byrd said the funds will go toward a computer-automated wood-cutting machine to help speed up beehive production.
For the girls, becoming friends and creating memories together will be something they look back at fondly.
“Me and Jessica have kind of been friends because we’re in the same grade. It’s a small school so you kind of know everybody,” Rutherford said. “I knew Brook and I knew Rachel, but I was never really close with them until we got on this project and we spent all these hours together, early mornings and late nights.”
Parish said the team has become close like a family.
“It’s one of those things that brings a lot of life lessons with you and a lot of memories,” Parish said. “It feels like we actually did something that’s worthwhile.”
Before becoming teammates, they were all the quiet ones in school, they said.
“We were all a shy group and when you go to the Houston competition you have to go out and say, ‘I’m Jessica Henneous, do you want to come look at my bees?’ And a lot of people are just like, ‘Oh, bees,’” Henneous said.
Rutherford never thought the quietest people in the school would be on national television.
“Nerves didn’t set in until after we realized the whole school would be watching us, but before that we were fine,” Parish said.
Through beekeeping, Goddard said she was able to grow in her leadership skills.
“Without this team, I probably wouldn’t be able to go up to speak to people, and that helped us out in Houston, too,” she said. “Houston gave a little boost and so everything else that’s followed has really helped, too.”
When the “Today” team came to film, Delima said she didn’t expect such a massive site at the Ozarka plant. She has been a “Today” producer since 2001 and covers the southern region of the country. This was her first time in Hawkins as well as her first bee story.
“It was beautiful to see. We got great drone shots of the area and seeing the girls and we all got to put on bee suits,” she said. “So how cool was that?”
For little girls watching across the country, she hopes the team’s actions are seen as inspirational.
“I hope it makes Texas proud. I don’t think it’s the last we’ve heard from these girls,” Delima said.
The girls said they enjoyed having an awesome high school experience and doing something for their community.
“It kind of blew up in our faces, but in a really good way,” Rutherford said.
Henneous, who plans to attend Texas A&M University-Commerce to become an agriculture teacher, said being on the team informed her career decision.
“If I didn’t have this experience this year with this team and with Mr. Byrd, I probably would still be looking into elementary education, but after all of this my senior year, I really want to be an ag teacher,” she said.
Rutherford also wants to attend Texas A&M-Commerce to become an agriculture teacher and earn a degree in equine science. Parish wants to go to Texas State University or Texas A&M, while Goddard wants to go to Texas A&M to become an anesthesiologist.
With Henneous and Rutherford graduating in the spring, juniors Parish and Goddard are working to recruit more beekeepers.
“We think the program itself is really fixing to take off after especially the exposure, number one, but we’ve got a lot of interest from our younger members that want to learn and take it on,” Byrd said. “So their job now is to recruit those, show them the ropes and just teach them and kind of keep it going.”
Goddard agreed with what Henneous said on the “Today” show about being able to do anything in life, no matter who you are.
“We’re showing them that we’re all unique and different, and we’re all coming together for one purpose,” she said.
Goddard said the overall experience has been amazing.
“I think we’ve all enjoyed it. Our classmates have enjoyed it,” Goddard said. “They’re proud of us. We’re proud of us. Our parents are proud of us.”
Byrd said they plan for honey production to triple during this spring harvest. They also will return to the Houston livestock show in March.
“We’ve got a new honey extraction table. They’re going to develop and design and show it (at Houston) along with it this year,” Byrd said.
Byrd and the team has learned the importance of bees for the world.
“We heard a study the other day that if we didn’t have bees, mankind would no longer exist,” Byrd said. “The awareness of conservation and beekeeping, I think it’s really sparked an interest in a lot of people. They’ve got a lot of knowledge of it now, where they can continue on when they do get out of high school and teach others.”
FFA has a diverse lineup of choices for students to find their niche, he added.
“We’ve got to be the best advocates for our industry, and if it’s through beekeeping so be it,” Byrd said.
All in all, the girls have gained knowledge through a unique opportunity.
“We’ve learned so much just within the past nine months, and it makes you think, ‘Oh, wow, I never knew that,’” Goddard said.