Fitness course earns Ashley Conroe the 4-H Diamond Clover Award

Ashley poses with awards
Ashley Conroe, center, Delaware 4-H’s second Diamond Clover Award winner. With Ashley L-R: Michelle Rodgers, Sen. Gary Simpson, Sen. Ernie Lopez and Rep. Ronald Gray. Photo by Michele Walfred.

On Wednesday, May 14, during a gathering at the 2014 Delaware 4-H Legislative Day, Sussex County 4-H member Ashley Conroe was named as the second recipient of the Delaware 4-H Diamond Clover Award, the highest honor a 4-H member can earn. The 4-H Diamond Clover Award is Delaware 4-H’s formal acknowledgment of Conroe’s achievement to make a significant difference in her community and state.

Conroe is  a member of the Lord Baltimore 4-H Helping Hands Club and resides in Ocean View, Del. with her parents Annmarie and Greg Conroe.

Delaware 4-H has long acknowledged excellence with blue ribbons, trophies, project pins and has awarded many scholarships to its 4-H members. The Diamond 4-H Clover Award is the capstone recognition to honor members who demonstrate extraordinary, sustained and focused service learning in their community.

The 4-H Diamond Clover Award is considered the equivalent of the Boy Scout Eagle or Girl Scout Gold Award.

“As with the Eagle, a very small number of members achieve this ultimate level of recognition,” said Dan Tabler a 4-H educator who conceived the award. The Diamond Clover Award also been adopted in Maryland and Nebraska. The Delaware 4-H Foundation sponsored the award for the First State.

To attain the Diamond Clover Award, a 4-H member must first progress through five stages. Upon completion, each stage is marked with a gemstone award designation – amethyst, aquamarine, ruby, sapphire, emerald and diamond. “The sixth level requires the 4-H member to propose a major community service project that must be approved by a local Diamond Clover Committee and the State 4-H project leader,” said Tabler.

Delaware 4-H’s Project Leader Mark Manno supervised Conroe’s process which took nearly two years to complete. At the award ceremony, Manno described the 4-H Diamond Clover Award process as intense, “It is not a race, it is a journey,” Manno said. ” It takes a lot of work and it impacts a lot of people. It is not for everybody. You really have to be passionate, committed and be willing to shed a few tears,” Manno said.

Conroe’s project – some tears, a lot of rain and a feeling of accomplishment

In her years with 4-H, Conroe’s interests gravitated toward the sciences and was active in computer arts, graphic arts, aerospace and robotic projects. As a cross country team member at Indian River High School, Conroe first thought of the idea to develop a fitness course in the untended land she saw near her school’s cross country course.

“In our community, there are not many places or trails to use for people to exercise whenever they would like to, and membership in a gym can be expensive,” Conroe told the 4-H rally audience. “Having an exercise course like this would improve everyone’s health.”

Wood Science was never a chosen 4-H project for Conroe. All that was about to change.

Conroe approached her coach, Major Ryman about her idea and he approved. With his help, Conroe navigated through the approval process which meant several meetings with school board members and the school’s building and regulation committee.

Conroe used the Internet to research the different types of outdoor exercise courses available. One of stipulations of her meetings was that the material had to be natural to fit into the wooded setting where the course would be located. Conroe began to think what she might be able to construct. She had a natural resource built into her 4-H network.

girl spreading mulch around a bench
Ashley puts the the finishing touches on one of her three exercise fitness stations. Photo courtesy of Conroe family

Although wood science is a popular 4-H project, it was an area in which Conroe had no experience. “Since I didn’t have much wood working skills, I talked to several people to see who could help.”

Conroe talked with 4-H wood science leader Bo Waller, who gave her some workable ideas. “Luckily, my father has a lot of tools and saws I was able to use,” Conroe said.

Another stipulation was that the course have 10 stations, each spaced a tenth of a mile apart. Ambitious, but practical, Conroe knew creating 10 stations would prove difficult for one person to undertake.  She decided to focus on three, and set about soliciting help to create the remaining seven. Her three stations are designed to allow runners to stretch and develop core muscle strength.

Conroe knew first hand the importance of muscle tone and injury prevention. During the project, Conroe tore her ACL during a soccer game. The injury delayed her ability to work on the project. “It was hard to move around and carry wood when you have two crutches in your hand,” Conroe admitted.  Her injury required knee surgery and physical therapy. “I did learn a lot a from the physical therapy about correct exercises.”

Besides the challenges of her injury, Conroe fought an enduring rainy season, which slowed her progress. “It was hard to stabilize the wood because it was always muddy,” Conroe remembered. Each area of her station had to be cleared of grass, and soil had to be turned over and leveled. “One station was really woody and needed trees cut and weeds pulled. This took quite a long time,” Conroe said.  Each station is finished off with mulch and outlined.

Conroe also networked with her IRHS graphics instructor Mr. Hoffman and his students to construct signs that explain each station’s purpose. “He is gong to make a big map where all the stations are, ” Conroe continued. Conroe wanted a uniform look for the entire fitness trail even though many people are contributing to the overall course. “I built a sign holder at each station and each one has the 4-H logo on it,” Conroe said.

Conroe focused her attention on her three stations – a sit-up bench, a set of three balance beams and a set of steps that runners can use to stretch or practice agility. “Each of the three exercise pieces was built at my house and transported to a field, ” Conroe said.

Ashley working in the garage building station
Build it and they will come! Photo courtesy of the Conroe family

As her project began to take shape, others grew interested in the project. Conroe was able to get a teak bench donated. Conroe placed the bench near the center of the course as a place for people to rest.

Conroe, who is also a Girl Scout, worked with area scouts who donated materials to install bird houses placed in different areas throughout the course. Conroe also received donations from area lumber yards such as 84 Lumber and Lowes. A local Boy Scout is now working on one or more stations and Conroe consulted with her school’s construction teacher to have his students, who often make things for the community, to consider taking on any remaining stations to reach the goal of 10.

The journey to see her goal through taught Conroe how to ask for funds and receive donations and discounts from area vendors. “I learned how to stay organized and keep everything in line.”  Injuries, weather delays and personal loss of her grandfather were all setbacks to achieve closure for her project, but Conroe persevered and believes she is stronger for the hardships she faced. “I learned things will always work out in the end,” Conroe reflected.

Conroe can now add 4-H wood working skills to her long 4-H resume.

“It feels really good to have the accomplishment and to actually do something for the community,” she said. “The cross country and football team are using it now. I think the soccer team is going to start using it soon.” Conroe hopes that the entire community, not just the school athletes, will enjoy the course. Conroe is looking to spread the word to her community.

Conroe is currently completing her first year of college at Delaware Technical and Community College and plans to attend Salisbury State University and plans to study physical therapy.

Article by Michele Walfred