International Flavor

It’s the start of a new semester and time for me to start learning about my next big adventure! I was accepted into the International Business Immersion Program (IBIP) for 2017, which is going to New Zealand! I will spend the semester learning about the agriculture, economy, and culture of New Zealand before traveling there for two weeks at the end of the semester.

Our first assignment to learn about Kiwi (people from NZ) culture was to make and eat a recipe that is native to NZ. My group decided to make New Zealand Birdseed Bars because, “You can’t go wrong with butter, honey, and sugar.”

Our group agreed that Kayla would go shopping at Walmart to get the ingredients. We didn’t know what sultanas were, but discovered that they are golden raisins. 


Our group met at 4-H House to make our Kiwi treat.

We mixed the dry ingredients and put them in the oven to roast.


Then we melted the butter, honey, and sugar together.


While we were waiting, we chatted about our majors and career goals.

When the dry ingredients were roasted and the butter mixture was melted, we slowly mixed them together.


Then we pressed the mixture into a pan and put it in the refrigerator to cool.


“It seriously looks like bird seed!”

The finished product was very tasty! We decided that it tastes a little bit like popcorn because the ingredients were roasted and there’s plenty of butter! Overall, we like our Kiwi treat and are looking forward to learning more about New Zealand as the semester progresses!



“Show Me” Agriculture

My summer travels continued as I had the opportunity to spend some time in the great “Show Me” state of Missouri.

My first two days in the St. Louis area were with my Illinois Farm Bureau internship. I went with the Cultivating Master Farmers Program on an ag industry tour around the St. Louis area.

St. Louis Science Center – Our first stop was the St. Louis Science Center’s brand new GROW exhibit. This is the first permanent agriculture exhibit of its kind. It includes videos of Illinois farmers and stories of farming in Missouri. It had a combine, orchard, beehive, and water area.

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center – The next stop was the Danforth Plant Science Center. They are doing lots of amazing plant research. Most of the information they shared was completely over my head, but absolutely fascinating.

Growmark’s Bussen Spur River Terminal – The last official stop of the day was Growmark’s river terminal. We toured their facilities and learned about Growmark’s business.

Finally, we went to one of the master farmers’ farm for dinner. The evening included delicious food, fantastic conversation, and a beautiful setting.

Osborn & Barr – The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at Osborn & Barr, an agricultural advertising agency. They gave us a tour of their downtown St. Louis officer that is full of history and decorated with contemporary details and decked out with modern technology. They also told us about their Barnstorm program, to help farmers brand themselves and their farms.

The Maschhoffs – Our final stop was at The Maschhoffs, a family-owned pork business. We learned about their business and discussed some of the ways farms are passed down through the generations.

My third day in St. Louis was the beginning of Ag Media Summit, a conference for ag communicators from all over the nation to network and learn from each other. As part of the conference, I attended another series of farm tours in rural Missouri.

Purina Animal Nutrition Center – This tour started at “the Farm,” where Purina has a farm with many units including beef, dairy, equine, & companion animals. We saw their state of the art equipment and technology in those areas.

Geisert Farms – Our next stop was a 360O turn around. We boarded a hayrack and toured a pasture pig farm where the pigs are rotated on the ground with produce, like farmers did 100+ years ago. Then we ate lunch at his restaurant/grocery store.

Scheer Dairy – The 3rd stop of the day was a dairy with three robotic milkers. Unfortunately, as is the nature of the business, the robotic arms had broken down that morning and Mr. Scheer was waiting for the maintenance man to get there.

Robller Vineyard – The last stop was very interesting, as I haven’t had the opportunity to tour a vineyard before. While I’m not quite old enough to participate in the wine tasting, it created a nice atmosphere for networking and discussing everything we saw that day.

I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had to see snapshots of the agricultural industry in the St. Louis area!

On the Road

My first month with Illinois Farm Bureau has definitely been consistent with my theme of a summer of adventures. The last three weeks have given me many opportunities to travel, network, and learn.

My first trip was to Carbondale for the Illinois Cooperative Council’s Youth Conference. This two-day conference taught FFA students about the principles and values of cooperatives. It gave me the opportunity to meet professionals working for different organizations in the industry.

After that, I spent the weekend in Effingham for the State Young Leader Committee meeting. This gave me insight into more of what the Young Leader Committee does and allowed me to get to know more people in agriculture throughout the state.

The next week, I spent time in Springfield at the State FFA Convention. This was another new experience for me as I never had the opportunity to be in FFA. I learned a lot about the organization and even had the opportunity to judge chapter scrapbooks.


Milton Hershey School Farm

Finally, my last adventure of June was on the Heritage and Cooperatives Tour to Washington, D.C. I helped chaperone about 70 FFA students that earned their trip to D.C. through projects they had worked on during the school year. Our trip took us to the Milton Hershey School farm, Gettysburg, Mt. Vernon, the Holocaust Museum, the Newseum, the Capitol, and many of the monuments around D.C. The students on the trip were great and it was fun to see some new parts of D.C. as well as revisit places I’ve been before.


Great group of students!

This first month of my internship has been a busy and fun ride! I’m looking forward to what the rest of the summer has in store!


My Last Week on the Beach

The next adventure of my summer has begun as I started my internship at Illinois Farm Bureau yesterday! The last few days have been a whirlwind, but after some readjusting of travel plans, I made it back to Illinois from Greek Summit last weekend and moved to Bloomington for my internship.


Church on the Beach

The rest of the trip was awesome and I’m excited about what this summer and next school year have in store! Waking up early for church on the beach was a great way to start the second week of Greek Summit. The week also gave us the opportunity to write up ministry plans for when we get back to campus in the fall. We heard talks on many topics including the potential legacy a Christian can leave in a sorority or fraternity, and apologetics and how to defend our faith.

The Lord worked in so many ways while we were in Destin! One of the highlights of the trip was watching one of the college students that some of our guys talked to during our day of outreach come to some of our events and eventually come to know Christ before the end of our trip. It was also incredible to see two
students on the trip be baptized in the Gulf of Mexico.


My lovely Small Group

I’m so glad that the Lord led me to going on this trip, even if that meant flying by myself, to a place I’d never been, to hang out with a bunch of strangers. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to make new friends from all over the southeastern United States. I’m also excited about everything I learned and having chances to implement my new skills and ideas.

greek summitIf you have any questions about the details of my trip to Greek Summit, just let me know!

The Adventure Continues

First I want to make a shout out to my friends that are traveling all over the world right now in places like Brazil, Croatia, and Italy. I’m getting my own taste of different cultures here in the south. I’m very amused by the large, baggy t-shirts with Nike shorts that seem to be the dress code here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I come home with a bit of a southern drawl.

In all seriousness, I’ve settled into my house with 12 other girls, gotten to know my super sweet roommate, and finally figured out some of what these 2 weeks look like.


Praise and worship on the beach!

Each morning we have a meeting at a church nearby. We usually have 2 talks that are meant to help us grow in our own relationship with God and teach us how to share the Gospel in our houses and on our campuses back home. Between these talks we have 45 minutes for quite time with reflection questions.

We also get to hear lots of testimonies about how God has worked in people’s lives. God has already been working and moving, challenging me to surrender every part of my life to him. I’m learning to trust Him with my future and what He has planned for me.

IMG_2820In the afternoon, we have time to hang out on the beach or at the pool. We this time to reflect on everything we’re learning and build community. We also play volleyball, spike ball, and I even tired paddle boarding.


Chocolate chip cookies with Oreos inside. We won best presentation!

We often spend the evenings in our ‘family groups’ competing and having fun. Our competitions have included games, a bake-off, bowling, and a lip-sync battle.

Thursday was our day of outreach. My family group went to the University of West Florida and got to share the Gospel with the students there.


Sunset Cruise

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been here for a week and that in another week I’ll be home. I’m looking forward to what the rest of this adventure has in store!greek summit

And so the Adventures Begin…

For those that don’t know, I’m VERY excited for my summer. It’s been a bit of a rough semester and while I’m thankful for everything I’ve learned and the strong friendships I’ve developed, I wasn’t sad to take my last final yesterday. The fact that my summer has officially started hasn’t quite set in yet, but I think some fun in the sun will change that soon enough!

IMG_2774I’m starting my summer adventures with a 2-week trip to Destin, FL with Cru, my campus ministry. I’m headed to Greek Summit, a Cru summer mission/leadership conference for college students that are part of the Greek system (in a fraternity or sorority). While I don’t really know what to expect, I can’t wait to see what God has in store for the next few weeks.


IMG_2773Whatever the next few weeks and months may hold, I’m learning to trust Him with my plans. I can only hope that my adventures are half as exciting and enlightening as Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy’s in the Chronicles of Narnia. (Re-reading the series is at the top of my summer reading list… and I may or may not have been 3 chapters in to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe before my plane even took off at 5:30am this morning.)

I hope this trip can be the “wardrobe” to my summer, leading me to something new and exciting! I will do my best to keep posting updates to my blog throughout my trip.

greek summit

I’m also praying for the adventures of my friends and roommates who will be all over the world in the next few weeks! (Places like Croatia, Brazil, Mexico, and Italy.)

(And for those of you wondering, when I get back from Florida, I will be moving to Bloomington and interning with Illinois Farm Bureau for the rest of the summer.)

IlliniThon News Story – Part 4 (Brenna’s Story)

For my final (and maybe favorite) story, I wrote about miracle child, Brenna Westlake, her family, and her rare skin condition. The people I got to interview for this story were wonderful and I’m looking forward to seeing the Westlakes at IlliniThon in just 10 days!!

donor drive cover photo

When Courtney Westlake takes her four-year-old daughter Brenna to the grocery store or the library in Springfield, they are used to getting stares and questions.

“We were walking to the library and this old man passed us. He stopped and turned around and stared at us the whole rest of the way we were walking,” said Courtney. “Her skin is just a surprise to people, they don’t expect to see this little girl who looks like she has a severe sunburn because they’ve probably never seen it before.”

11713840_1128342500525747_7206501105167832282_oBrenna has a very rare genetic skin disorder, harlequin ichthyosis. Harlequin is the most severe form of ichthyosis, a group of skin disorders. Brenna’s genetic code is missing a gene, causing her skin to form incorrectly. Because of this, her skin grows very fast and is very thick. It also has to shed more rapidly, causing her red, flaky skin that can look like a peeling sunburn.

Dr. Joseph Conlon, the Westlake’s pediatric dermatologist, explained the medical issues beyond Brenna’s unique appearance.

“[Our skin] keeps everything in that’s supposed to stay in and everything out that’s supposed to stay out,” explained Dr. Conlon. “[Brenna’s] skin is not able to do everything that it needs to do.”

He went on to explain that our skin regulates our body temperature and moisture. It also keeps infections and other harmful things out of our body. Since Brenna’s skin cannot do all of those things, she is vulnerable to dehydration, overheating and infection.

To avoid those dangers, Brenna and her family have to take special care of her skin. They apply Aquaphor, a thick lotion, all over her body four to five times a day. Every evening, Brenna takes about a 45-minute bath. The long bath allows her skin to soak up the moisture and helps exfoliate the skin that has built up in the last 24 hours.

There are also lots of little things that the Westlakes constantly have to be thinking about. They wash Brenna’s hands a lot to help her avoid germs and infection. They closely monitor her temperature to make sure she is not too hot or too cold. In the winter, you will often find her wrapped up in a blanket and in the summer she has a special vest that helps keep her cool and prevents overheating.

Brenna eats a lot because her body uses so much energy to produce her extra skin. She also has to drink a lot to stay hydrated.

Courtney explained that sometimes Brenna’s care can be exhausting and says it is difficult to think about how Brenna will have to do these things every day for the rest of her life. She also knows that her daughter will always be explaining to people why she is different and what harlequin is.

Evan Westlake, Brenna’s dad, described the condition with the ‘bricks and mortar’ analogy. He explained that everyone’s skin is made of bricks and mortar, but Brenna’s skin is missing the mortar. Her body knows there are gaps in her skin so it tries to produce more skin to heal those gaps, which is what normal skin would do for a cut. However, the new skin that her body produces is also faulty, leading to thicker skin that still doesn’t seal like it should. Brenna then has to get rid of the extra skin, which is why it flakes off and peels like it does.

Harlequin ichthyosis is a recessively inherited genetic disorder, meaning that a baby must inherit one recessive gene for the disorder from each parent.

“The chance of both of us having the genetic mutation for this is one in a million,” said Courtney.

The condition is so rare that accurate statistics cannot be calculated and the Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types (FIRST) simply lists harlequin ichthyosis as “very rare.”

The Westlakes said they know of about 20 other people in the United States who also have harlequin ichthyosis. They have had the opportunity to meet these people through FIRST.

FIRSTFIRST was started in 1981 in California for families who are affected by ichthyosis. It started as a volunteer organization but is now run by a team of full-time staff members in Philadelphia. The foundation raises money for ichthyosis research. It also helps provide support for affected families by connecting them via the Internet and at the National Family Conference every two years.

“I think a combination of [having full time staff and the age of the Internet] really has gotten us to where we are today,” said the Chief Executive Officer of FIRST, Jean Pickford. “We now have over 5,000 connected families in our database.”

The Westlakes are grateful for the support of FIRST and love to help other families that have babies born with ichthyosis. There are only a few official medical documents that talk about harlequin and a few doctors that have treated it before. The Westlakes and their medical team used all of the resources available to them to help Brenna and are happy to share their experiences to help others.

When Brenna was born, her parents’ first thought was that she just needed to be wiped off, but the thick, white coating on her little body couldn’t be wiped off. Within an hour, Brenna was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital, and Springfield’s only pediatric dermatologist was sent a picture of Brenna. Dr. Conlon immediately diagnosed Brenna with harlequin ichthyosis.

“I look at those pictures and I just remember the fear and the worry and the stress that we had at that time,” said Courtney as she looked through a photo album. “I’m glad that we can look back at those pictures from her birth now and have her with us today. Now it truly is a big celebration; it didn’t feel like a celebration back then.”

Brenna is just starting to notice her baby pictures, but she doesn’t realize that they are different than anyone else’s. She doesn’t ask about her skin or see it as something that makes her different; it’s just a part of her world.

“We don’t talk about [Brenna’s condition] that much, not because it’s something we don’t want to talk about, but it’s just not an issue for our family right now,” said Courtney. 12510454_1239170502776279_854214510338747551_n“We always want her to know that no matter how the world outside is treating her, at home she’s just part of our family.”

Evan and Courtney want Brenna to know that she is an amazing girl, and that has nothing to do with her skin.

“Above all, it has always been this huge love for her and this gratitude that she is a part of our family,” said Courtney. “With that being the top emotion, it’s easy to help her see that.”

“Who’s the most beautiful girl in the world?” Courtney asked as the family sat in the living room.

“Me!” exclaimed Brenna, as she pointed to herself and danced around.

Brenna is a spunky and outgoing four-year-old, according to her parents. She is very social and loves school and running errands with her parents.

Courtney describes her six-year-old son, Connor, as sensitive, cautious and thoughtful. Most importantly, he loves his little sister.

“He is just the perfect brother for her,” said Courtney.

Connor, who has normal skin, is also starting to defend his sister and explain to other kids that she just has a “skin addition.”

“I just like to play with her!” said Connor with a big grin, as he hugged his sister, almost knocking her over.

Connor isn’t the only one who enjoys spending time with Brenna.

“I spent a lot of time with Brenna last year at [IlliniThon],” said IlliniThon’s family relations director, Lauren Adrian. “I was just drawn to her. She’s such a cutie, how could you not love dancing with her?”

Brenna loved being in the spotlight at her first IlliniThon in 2015. IlliniThon is an annual Children’s Miracle Network event at the University of Illinois that raises money for St. John’s Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Ill. Evan and Courtney were amazed by how excited all the students were and how much money they raised.

“We know first hand what that money actually does go to. We’ve used so many of the resources that they’re raising money for so that’s really neat to be a part of,” said Courtney.

The members of IlliniThon are happy to have Courtney on board, too. A few days after Brenna was born, Courtney started her blog, Blessed by Brenna. Adrian explained that the members of IlliniThon love to be able to share links on social media to blogs like Courtney’s.

“[Courtney] being so connected with the Internet makes it easier for people to understand why we do what we do,” said Adrian.

The students who plan IlliniThon have been working to make this year’s event the biggest and best one yet. IlliniThon will take place on April 23, 2016 and many miracle children, like Brenna, and their families will be in attendance. The IlliniThon executive team is passionate about what they are doing and it’s all for the kids and families.

“What always inspires me about the families is their ability to adapt to the situation and only find positives within it,” said Adrian.

The Westlake family has definitely done that, as Courtney uses her journalism degree to write about the importance and beauty in differences. She wants others, especially her daughter, to see and celebrate the beauty in the world.

“Life doesn’t always look like what we planned,” Courtney wrote on her blog. “But it doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Beautiful can be found everywhere, when we take the time to see it.”


To join me in supporting IlliniThon and kids like Brenna, make a donation!

Also read my other IlliniThon News Stories:

IlliniThon News Story – Part 1

IlliniThon News Story – Part 2 (Trick or Treat For the Kids)

IlliniThon News Story – Part 3 (Peyton’s Story)