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Former Lakeview teacher leads team to nationals

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Catherine and Justin Chmelka

Justin and Catherine Chmelka pose for a photo inside 402 Floral in 2020. They took over the David City flower shop -- previously called Small Town Blooms -- around the same time that Catherine, maiden name Ripp, received the Nebraska Agricultural Educators Association's Teacher Turn the Key award for excellence in agriculture education. After Chmelka received the award, she said she hoped to use 402 Floral for as many educational applications as possible.

A former Lakeview Community Schools teacher has helped lead a local floriculture team to the 94th National FFA Convention and Expo in Indianapolis in a few days.

The David City Public Schools (DCPS) four-member floriculture team -- part of a local chapter of the National FFA Organization -- has been working toward the Oct. 27 competition since before January.

"The FFA is a school organization. It's an extracurricular within agricultural education," Catherine Chmelka said.

Chmelka is the David City floriculture team's advisor and an animal, vet and plant science teacher at DCPS in Butler County. Before she began teaching at DCPS, she was the ag teacher for three years at Lakeview in Columbus.

She started with about 60 students her first year at Lakeview, and that number had more than doubled by the end of her time there.

"She was well-liked by the kids and was very supportive to our program," Lakeview Board President Keith Runge said.

Runge remembered Chmelka being at Lakeview around the time the district started its recently-completed remodel, and said she helped obtain some grant funding for the district.

"I know there were several kids who got their state (FFA) degrees, so she kept that tradition going," Runge said. "...I've seen her at a few graduations for seniors … who had her when they were younger. They thought enough of her to invite her back and she came and supported them, so that means she touched their lives in a special way."

Chmelka moved to the David City area to be closer to where she grew up, and began teaching at DCPS about three years ago.

Given Chmelka's background in and passion for floriculture, horticulture and plant science, perhaps it's not surprising that the David City floriculture team has flourished under her guidance.

Near the end of her first year at DCPS, Chmelka and her husband bought and began running a flower shop -- 402 Floral, 420 E St. in David City -- where the floriculture team routinely holds practice.

"It helps to have the equipment and the flowers on hand for them to look at," Chmelka said. "Being the business owner we can come here … at 7 o'clock at night."

It's an advantage, Chmelka said, but she stressed that the team members have each invested many hours in their success.

Team member Payton Andel said they have been practicing since before the district competition in January, which the team won.

"About 15 schools in our area competed," Chmelka said. "(Our team) won in January of 2021, which advanced them to state. … There are 15 districts in Nebraska and each district could take four schools to compete at state, and our team won state -- they placed first out of all of those teams who competed."

The state convention was in April, and that was when the team knew it had qualified for nationals. A virtual round of national competition in August determined which 20 teams would participate in the final, in-person round of competition at the national convention.

"Typically there isn't a virtual component but, because of COVID, they did it just to narrow down how many kids were going to be (in Indianapolis)," Chmelka said. "(Our team) placed in the top 20 out of the 50 teams who competed."

It was after that August competition that the team knew it would be heading to Indianapolis.

"I'm excited to represent the state of Nebraska," Andel said. "...I'm just excited to show off what we've been practicing and what we know."

Molly Hunter is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at molly.hunter@lee.net.

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