The $50 Scholarship That Changed My Life

Matt Espenshade

Matt Espenshade

Matt Espenshade

Elizabethtown Area Grange Master

Fifty dollars. Most of us don’t think twice about spending that much money for a new pair of blue jeans or a nice dinner date. However, I can honestly say that a mere $50 changed my life completely.

My name is Matt Espenshade, and I am proud to be a member of Elizabethtown Grange #2076, in Lancaster County (Pa.). It has been a blessing to be surrounded by such a supportive group and to have some of the finest mentors I could ever hope for. The members of my subordinate Grange have allowed me to serve as their Master for the past 14 years, and together, we have accomplished so much. However, I know that the brightest days, for both Elizabethtown and the Grange as a whole, are yet to come.

For many years, one of my favorite duties as Master of Elizabethtown Grange was to present the Outstanding Senior in Agricultural Education scholarship at the local high school awards program. Each year, our Grange gives a $500 scholarship to a college-bound senior in recognition of that student’s dedication to studies in agriculturally related fields.

In 1991, I was at the awards program. Not as a presenter, however, but as a senior in high school. The local Grange presented me with a $50 savings bond for being the top ag student of the graduating class. Being recognized by an agricultural organization was very meaningful to me. I sent them a thank you note, but didn’t give it much thought after that. I was off to college!

The four years went by fast. I had become heavily involved with activities in college, such as Dairy Science Club and Alpha Zeta Fraternity.

After I returned home from college, I felt a “social emptiness” inside. I spent the summer months trying to get involved in different things. I became a local 4-H leader, although I had no previous 4-H experience. But it didn’t take long before I realized that what I missed was the family atmosphere of my college fraternity. Being together with people that shared common interests and background was what I was missing. The friendships I made there I knew I’d hold on to for the rest of my life. Where could I ever meet friends like that again?

In late August 1995, during the Elizabethtown Fair, I passed by a milkshake stand staffed by the local Grange, and I remembered the scholarship they had given me. I spoke for a while with a lady working there that evening and she encouraged me to come to an upcoming meeting. I attended my first meeting in October of 1995 and I’ve been hooked ever since. I was welcomed in with open arms, and one lady in particular, Anna Snook, “took me under her wing” and explained different aspects of the organization to me. I know it was because of her kindness that I stayed interested in learning more about this “Grange stuff”.

In time, I realized this was more than just a club or social group. It was truly a fraternal organization. Everyone called each other “Brother” or “Sister”, and it really felt like an extended family. It was what I needed, and I jumped in, head first. In less than three months, I went from literally a guy off the street to a member in the 7th degree!

When the time came to elect officers, I was nominated and was given my first office, Overseer. Talk about learning on the fly!  But again, the support I was given made it seem easy. In 2000, I was elected to serve as just the third Master in the history of Elizabethtown Grange.

Over the years, our Grange has changed a lot. When I first joined, meetings were held around scattered tables. Now, when we don’t set up for the full ritualistic opening, it just doesn’t “feel right”. Our group has focused on teaching area children about the importance of agriculture and our rural communities through poster and coloring contests. Also, that senior scholarship that was a $50 savings bond is now a check for $500.

If you are looking for a way to promote the study of agriculture in your local schools and increase visibility of the Grange in your community, you may want to consider presenting a scholarship to a deserving senior about to go on to college. I’m sure your local school’s guidance councilor or FFA adviser would be pleased to work with you on setting up an award. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of money either. Having gone off to college, I know first hand that every little bit helps.

It has been almost 20 years since I joined Grange. I still have the copy of my first Grange Knowledge Test from Pennsylvania State Grange Youth Camp, on which I scored a 24 out of 100, and that was with a lot of “help” from the people at my table. But I’ve learned a lot over the years, whereas by the time I aged-out of the youth program, I would consistently score 90-plus points on a knowledge test about our organization that would make many Grangers cry.

This organization has given me so much, and I am deeply grateful for that. Of course, I’d be amiss if I did not mention the fact that I got to know my future wife, Charlene Shupp Espenshade, through Grange. Charlene had moved to Elizabethtown from Tunkhannock, Wyoming County, for her job. Being a member of South Auburn Grange #1188, she was interested in attending the local Grange meetings while away from home. Without the Grange, the odds of us ever meeting are slim at best, let alone anything beyond that. We have been married ten years now, and Grange continues to be something we can both enjoy together.

Our youngest son turned five last September, and is a member of Elizabethtown Area Junior Grange #551.  Our oldest son is 8, and has attended State Junior Camp and other activities. They are both very excited about Junior Grange! I can only imagine the opportunities that our two sons will have as they grow up surrounded by Grange friends.

It’s been many years since I was given that Grange scholarship. Though I enjoyed making the annual presentation, this duty has been passed on to the next generation of Grange youth.  This May, Deidra Bollinger, an Elizabethtown Grange youth member, will again handle this responsibility. She too was looking for a way to be involved in the community after high school, and has found our Grange to be a great fit. Today, Deidra serves as our Lecturer. A previous winner of our scholarship, Cassidy Cheddar, is the Pennsylvania State Grange Youth Ambassador, and an active member of Penn State Collegiate Grange #2105. In recent years, four of our scholarship winners have either joined or were members of the Grange at the time.  Each of these youth has a bright future ahead of them in our organization.

When you think about it, what brought me to the Grange wasn’t a fancy presentation or a tri-color pamphlet; it was that simple $50 scholarship. That scholarship perked my interest in this organization and eventually opened the doors to a new family of friends. Joining Grange has been one of the best decisions in my life.

Of course, I still kid the Elizabethtown Grange members that maybe someday they’ll get their money’s worth out of me!

Editor’s Note: Matt Espenshade is the husband of Charlene Shupp Espenshade, National Grange Youth Director. Matt is a dairy farmer and served with Charlene as the Pennsylvania State Grange Young Couple for two terms.

FFA and the Grange

This week, FFA chapters are celebrating National FFA Week. The Grange continues to have a strong commitment to this ag education youth organization. Subordinate Granges provide ag education scholarships and outstanding students in agriculture awards. State Granges connect with state officer teams. And many Grange members, including myself, have rocked a blue corduroy jacket and a blue subordinate Grange sash.

In honor of FFA Week, I am reposting the story I wrote back in the fall of 2010 talking about the connection between the two organizations. The story is as follows.

The Connection Between FFA and Grange

Walk the halls of almost any high school in America, and there are few things as universally recognizable as the blue corduroy of an FFA jacket. It is not only the unique style and bold colors that make it stand out, but also the young men and women who wear these jackets with pride. For many, the FFA is a focal point of their high school career. However, from the first time a student dons their FFA jacket, in the back of their mind, they realize it will one day come to an end.

Hanging up the blue jacket can be an emotional time for a retiring FFA member. They have invested countless hours in preparing for contests, developing leadership skills, and organizing their Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) project. Many are faced with the question of “what now?” For many, the Grange serves as the springboard for FFA alumni looking to take the next step in life.

Across the country there are Grange members, both current FFA members and alumni, who call the Grange home and say the blue sash of the Grange is a perfect fit.

From its inception, the Grange has advocated agricultural education, and has been an ardent supporter of FFA. Formerly known as the Future Farmers of America, the FFA was formed in 1926 to augment what was taught in the classroom with extracurricular activities. The Grange supported vocational education efforts, including the passage of several laws that lead to the FFA’s formation. The first FFA Executive Secretary, Henry Groseclose, was also a Seventh Degree Grange member, and is the author of the FFA Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Some might think the similarities between the two organizations are coincidental. However, look beneath the surface, and the connection is profound.

Victor Salazar, 2010-2011 Connecticut FFA State President said, “Both organizations are rooted in agriculture, both promote excellence, and both make the member a better individual.” Salazar served as the 2008 National Grange Youth Master as part of the National Grange Youth Officer Team.

“I believe the best way to illustrate the connection between the Grange and the FFA is to look at the closing charge of the Master in the Grange and the President in the FFA;” he cited the charges’ common themes of diligence in labor, honesty and fairness. While each is said differently, the similarity is undeniable.

“These were written more than 50 years apart from each other, yet they say basically the same thing. To me this exemplifies the connection between the two organizations the best,” Salazar said.

National Grange Master Ed Luttrell said the FFA provided him with several life skills that he utilizes today in his Grange duties. However, he is quick to point out that it was in the Grange that he was able to take the classroom experience and apply it to real life.

“That is why the connection is so positive. You learn the skills on one side (in FFA) and then use them on the other side in Grange,” said Luttrell. During his time in the Hillsboro Mid-High chapter in Oregon, Luttrell said he participated in every FFA contest possible, soaking up information “as a sponge.” A favorite contest was parliamentary procedure, a skill that comes in handy in his current role as National Master.

Former Pennsylvania FFA State Reporter, and Elizabethtown Grange member, Suzannah Mellinger said that the one unique aspect of the Grange is its sense of family among its members. It is one of the reasons she joined the organization near the conclusion of her State Officer career. She also noted that for FFA alumni looking for the next step in leadership, the transition into the Grange is an easy one.

Caroline Tart, the 2009-2010 National Grange Youth Mentor and Rosewood FFA Chapter member, is facing this difficult phase of her FFA career; putting on her blue jacket for the last time. Like Salazar, she has had an active FFA career, including chapter and regional FFA offices and serving as a National FFA convention delegate for her home state of North Carolina.

“Hanging up my blue jacket was a very tough realization and the end of an era,” Tart said. “However, having the Grange there helps fill the void immensely. I know that it is an organization that has a passion for agriculture and helps improve the youth of today and those two things are what I am passionate about.” She also noted her dedication to agriculture and education did not have to end with FFA and that she is able to continue her work, just in a different way.

2009 National Youth Officer Team Master Joe Stefenoni of California encourages FFA members to seek the Grange to use their talents; “Once FFA members are out of high school they have very few places to use those skills, and the Grange is one of the places they can.” He is a member of the Sebastopol- Analy FFA chapter.

As an FFA member who has an appreciation for the opening and closing FFA ceremonies, Stefenoni said he has developed a passion for such Grange traditions as its rituals, describing them as “beautiful.”

Pennsylvania’s Gail Switzer, 2008-2009 National Grange Youth Mentor, and Conrad Weiser, FFA Alumni, said the National Grange Youth Department activities allow her the opportunity to continue her leadership growth through contests such as public speaking, gaining responsibility by completing tasks, and making her community better through Grange service projects.

The Grange is noted for its traditions of family and rural advocacy. It is those traditions that have made the lasting impact for FFA alumni in the Grange.

“The thing I remember most from FFA is the friendships we had,” said Luttrell. “We were the ag boys when I was in FFA… in reality, we were a close bunch because of the activities. Those things are exactly the same in the Grange, except the friendship and fellowship is far deeper and much longer lasting. There is a real difference from being a group of just high school students to being a part of a group that includes grandparents and little kids. The family structure of the Grange fills the void from FFA. It’s more than a bunch of peers, it’s a family. As we go through life, family becomes more and more important to us.”