Doing the “Heart” Work

A group of five people, each holding awards, smiling.

Wayne County 4-H volunteer leaders Jennifer and Ray Henderson (far left and right) led the local 4-H Forestry team to a first place victory at nationals.

Teaming Up Together

Wayne County 4-H places first in National 4-H Forestry Invitational 

Ray Henderson’s love for the outdoors began in his youth with learning by doing in 4-H Forestry. He won the State 4-H Congress competition, went to nationals, and placed fifth. After he aged out of the youth development program, he pursued a career with the U.S. Forest Service, and he volunteered in the 1990s as a coach for a few 4-H Forestry teams in Wayne and Greene Counties.

A blonde girl wearing a green jacket and khakis, smiling.
“It really takes the discipline to sit down and study. It took teamwork—all of us on the team teaching each other, listening to each other, and working together. We wanted to win and go to nationals; Dad and Mom showed us we had to know the names and those little details.”

— Ashlyn Henderson

A boy wearing a cowboy hat and green jacket, smiling.

“It means a lot winning the National Forestry Invitational with my teammates and friends Karolina and Ashlyn. The real credit should go to Mr. Ray and Mrs. Jennifer Henderson: I’m thankful for the time my coaches sacrificed to prepare for this and the things they had to do to help us prepare. I could not have asked for better coaches!”

— Cody McFetridge

A brunette girl wearing a gray jacket and blue polo, smiling.

“With the outstanding guidance and knowledge given to us by our sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Henderson, we were thoroughly prepared. I am extremely thankful for the time, energy, and effort they gave us. I have changed my major to conservation biology to continue to work with forests in the future, and I will always be thankful for this opportunity to compete with my amazing team to achieve this wonderful accomplishment.”

— Karolina Heathcock

Ray married and had children, and, for a few years, focused on his family and stepped away from 4-H volunteering. That all changed when his eldest son, Bo, started competing in 4-H Forestry in Wayne County in 2016. Ray got out his old materials, and his wife, Jennifer, joined him as an assistant coach. A kindergarten teacher at Wayne Academy, she helped make flashcards and organized learning resources for instruction.

“4-H Forestry projects can open doors,” Ray emphasizes. “This could be a possible career, or it can help anyone interested in forestry, wildlife, or hunting.”

Later that year, Bo’s success at State 4-H Congress made him eligible for national competition. He and his dad accompanied two 4-H’ers from Rankin County and their volunteer-leader coach Patrick Lemoine to the national competition. Lemoine shared study materials with the Hendersons.

After Bo aged out of 4-H in 2018, his younger sister, Ashlyn, was already studying forestry. Ray and Jennifer kept coaching. Two new 4-H club members, Karolina Heathcock and Cody McFetridge, joined the forestry team.

At 2021 State 4-H Congress, the Wayne County 4-H team, headed by the Hendersons, won first-place honors, qualifying them for national competition. But because of the pandemic, nationals became a virtual contest.

The 4-H’ers wanted to experience nationals in person, so they kept practicing and won state for the second year in a row in 2022. The Wayne County 4-H team headed to West Virginia to compete against the other top 4-H forestry teams across the nation at the 2022 National 4-H Forestry Invitational in late July.

The Mississippi 4-H team won first place, a first in state history. Individually, Karolina received the top overall score, followed by second-place winner Ashlyn. Cody scored in the top 10.

“It took lots of hard work and studying,” Jennifer explains. “They met on their own; they met with us. They studied inside; they studied outside. They would measure trees; they would look at leaves. They studied the materials we gave them; they stepped up and led. Then, Mississippi had the top two scorers!”

Even with so many years of working and competing at the highest level at nationals, Ray was surprised, having assisted with other great Mississippi teams.

“The competition is so tough,” Ray remembers. “When our team wasn’t named in the first five listed of the top six, I thought we would be seventh, but then we were first, and I was overjoyed!”

Ten other states competed, with Louisiana and Florida placing second and third, respectively.

“Mississippi had never won,” Ashlyn emphasizes. “We were in a daze of shock, and we were just overjoyed.”

“I’m really proud of this team. They’re all good friends, and they really wanted this,” Ray reflects.

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A Black man with glasses wearing a blue and yellow striped tie, a blue dress jacket, and khakis, standing on a deck in front of a tree.

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