People who know Keala Smith say she never meets a stranger, and she's hoping to greet some friends during the project competition of the State 4-H Congress next week.
Smith, 18, recently graduated from Alcovy High School and will represent Newton County 4-Hers in the senior environmental sciences category - one of 49 categories - at the State Congress at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia Hotel in Atlanta.
Smith's entry fee and lodging for the event from Aug. 24 to Aug. 27 have been paid for by donations from the Georgia 4-H Foundation.
Program Specialist Trey Cocus has helped Smith prepare her presentation, which will count as of half of her score in the competition.
"A big part of it is how to talk in front of people and how to do research," Cocus said, "which is a big preparation for college."
Judges also will grade her portfolio of club activities she has participated in over the past year. If Smith places first in her division at state, then she will become a Master 4-Her - the highest honor bestowed upon teenage members.
Program Assistant Kim Lawrence has helped guide Smith through the organization since she joined while in fifth grade.
"Keala's a very interesting person, very outgoing, funny, very energetic," Lawrence said. "When she first came to 4-H she was so quiet - now you can't shut her up."
She has helped her practice her presentation and said Smith has gained extensive knowledge of her project's subject and speaks well.
"Keala has no problem with getting in front of people," Lawrence said.
Smith earned her spot at state by placing first in a district competition in April.
At state, she will present the same information about how construction run-off leads to silt (a sedimentary material consisting of very fine particles of size between sand and clay) in bodies of water and how that affects marine ecosystems. Two experts in environmental science will listen to her presentation.
"So, she'll be asked questions from people who know the area of environmental sciences," Cocus said.
Smith demonstrates an at-home experiment anyone can perform to measure the amounts of silt, sand and clay in any body of water from a puddle to a lake.
She will use water from Tom Brown Lake - a man-made lake her grandfather dug.
"Picture yourself as a fish, swimming in the water," Smith said while practicing her presentation. "All of a sudden you can't breathe, it's murky."
"Fish don't know it's silt."
Smith compares a fish swimming in silt to a person caught in a house fire breathing in smoke. She also explained how silt can stifle populations of fish by blocking sunlight that nourish phytoplankton (microscopic free-flowing water plants), which small fish eat.
She said when phytoplankton dies, the small fish have nothing to eat and they die leaving nothing for larger fish to eat.
According to Smith, subdivision construction is the number one producer of run-off leading to silt in rivers and lakes.
"Keala's presentation is something I don't know much about that I learned through her presentation," Cocus said, "and she puts it in such a conversational manner. Most times when people give a speech, I want to go to sleep, but she makes it a conversation almost."
Lawrence said Smith had previously competed in the public speaking categories at past District Project Achievements but switched to environmental sciences this year after a class at Alcovy piqued her interest.
"I started taking the class just to take it as a credit," Smith said. "I thought it was going to be lame, but I ended up falling in love with environmental science."
She conducted a small amount of research on the internet about the affects of construction run-off but primarily worked with her environmental science teacher Troy Davis.
"Any time I had a question about something, he was there to answer," Smith said.
Along with her presentation and questions from experts, Smith's portfolio will earn her points toward becoming a Master 4-Her.
Smith has participated in numerous 4-H activities from recycling to teaching small classes about global warming and air pollution. She said her favorite activity was working as a team leader for the fifth grade camp in Eatonton this year.
"She's at that excellent age where she can be a leader - she's mature enough - but also young enough to relate to them," Cocus said.
Smith said she plans to study early childhood education at Georgia Perimeter College and finish at Columbus State University.
"I'm a kid myself," Smith said. "I may be 18, but I still act like a kid and I want to help out the way 4-H helped me and give back."
Cocus explained that Master 4-Her's are highly regarded by the University of Georgia since the organization is an arm of the school's outreach through the Cooperative Extension Department, but that other college's appreciate the caliber of study and dedication the title entails.
He added 4-H activities and competitions provide students with excellent networking opportunities.
Smith said even if she does not become a Master 4-Her next week, she will be a life-long member.
"When I'm 80 I'll still be wearing green, and I'll have a green wheelchair with 4-H rims on it," Smith said.
She said she is most nervous about tripping over her words during the presentation, but that nerves have not prevented her from competing in the past.
"I have confidence in myself," Smith said. "I set my goal - I'm going to achieve my goal."