Helen Thomas, a longtime Vale resident, was recently awarded an Honorary Oregon FFA State Degree. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

VALE – Not one for the spotlight, longtime Vale resident Helen Thomas recently found herself there – as a recipient of an Honorary Oregon FFA State Degree.

“I’m very humbled and very honored by it. I wasn’t expecting it, and it’s something that I thought would never happen,” Thomas said. “I’ve always been someone who does things in the background. I do it because I love the kids, I love the program. I believe in the program.” 

Thomas was nominated for the honor by FFA advisors in the Snake River District, which includes the Ontario, Nyssa, Vale, Adrian, Harper and Jordan Valley FFA chapters. 

Holding back tears, Thomas said she felt like she didn’t deserve the recognition.

“I just feel like that more people out there who do a lot more for the FFA,” she said. “It’s such a great honor to get that acknowledgement… I just enjoy what I do and meeting people.”

Born in Baker City but raised in Unity, Thomas said her hometown did not have a local FFA chapter for her to join.

“The FFA didn’t come to Unity until about 20 years ago,” she said. “So I didn’t have the opportunity when I was in high school.”

However, Thomas grew up in an agricultural household and married a rancher in Unity.

In 1979, she and her husband moved to Vale, where they continued ranching and raised their kids.

In Vale, Thomas worked for the Malheur Education Service District and became involved with the local 4-H Club and FFA when her sons joined as students. 

“I had been involved in the 4-H program ever since we moved down here,” Thomas said. “When my kids went into high school, my oldest was very active in the FFA, and my youngest son was involved as well.”

But it was through her work that Thomas developed key relationships with FFA chapters and program leaders.

“I worked 24 years for the Malheur ESD, and I remember we used to bring all the FFA advisors from Malheur County and Harney County chapters for workshops,” Thomas said. “Of course, you get to interact with the FFA at the fair, but many of them I got to know and worked with were people I met through the Malheur ESD.”

Thomas also served on the Vale FFA advisory board until her children finished school.

After she left the advisory board, Thomas was invited to be on the FFA Harvest Auction and Scholarship Board, where she continues to serve now.

The money raised by the October auction goes to a scholarship fund for Vale High School seniors.

“Any student who applies can get a scholarship anywhere from $200 to $2,300,” Thomas said. “They have to be on an agriculture or FFA program, fill out an application and go through an interview process. We then decide the amount each student gets. Our largest scholarship this year is $2,300.”

Thomas has also been a member of the Malheur County Fair Board for 15 years and the Malheur County Junior Sale Committee for 20 years.

Thomas, who retired about four years ago, said she loves FFA’s contributions to the Vale community, especially the youth. 

She said FFA is important because it provides students an opportunity to not only learn about agriculture but also develop their communication and public speaking skills.

“Most people think it’s only about agriculture, but the FFA is so much more,” Thomas said. “Now it’s about marketing, business, sales, public speaking, and many more. There are so many directions one can take.”

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.