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Where Are They Now: Kathy Watier

By Ron Drum, Statewide 4-H Program Professional/Associate Director 4-H Resource Development

As I am able to collect the information, I will, upon occasion, post additions to a series I’m calling “Where are they now?” This post is the first of what I hope will be many such posts and tells the story about Maine 4‑H alum Katherine Watier Ong.

What a way to start! So let’s get started.

Katherine Watier Ong

Katherine Watier Ong

Kathy Watier was, and still is, one of the strongest leaders I know. In 1995, when she was graduating from 4-H at age 19, I wrote:

I believe her strongest talent is her Leadership ability. I call this a “talent” as leadership comes so naturally to her that I believe she is one of the few “born” leaders. Give her a cause and she will strive to carry it as far as it can go. Tell her it can’t be done, and she will work all that much harder to prove otherwise.

Oh, and I wasn’t alone in my evaluation of Kathy! Her County 4-H Agent, Carney McRae, once said, “Kathy is a gifted student and capable of accomplishing any goals or dreams that she has. … Kathy exhibits outstanding leadership skills. She is not afraid to tackle any project.”

Ronald Dolloff, her high school Principal, wrote of her, “She is an outstanding student leader, a thinker, an innovator, an organizer, a doer. … In my twenty-three years as principal, I have found it unusual to have a young person manifest the keen perceptiveness, the ability, and the desire to undertake the ‘impossible.’ Her determination is unmatched. … Once given the green light, she’s off! Great things happen!”

Her high school English teacher, Jean Lawrence, wrote, “Kathy is one of the most ambitious young women I have taught over the past twenty-seven years. She constantly sets goals and moves with dispatch and a methodical approach to achieve them. … She is a very strong leader, a plus for most situations …. She is one of a kind and very special.”

Her high school math teacher, H. Paul Forrest, added, “The staff at Medomak Valley feels that when a woman is finally elected president, it will be Katherine Watier.”

I told you I wasn’t alone in my evaluation! Kathy was a 4-H Member who was fun to work with and got things done. Someone once asked me how I found it possible to put my career so often into the hands of teens! Read on and you’ll see that with teens like Kathy, the odds were in my favor!

I think I first connected with Kathy when she was 17. She interviewed for, and then was chosen to attend, the 1993 National 4-H Conference, a delegation I chaperoned. On the way home from Washington, D.C., she mentioned her desire for a statewide 4-H Teen Conference. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a request. I hadn’t been in Maine “the first time” very long, in fact, before I began to hear about teens wanting to have a state 4-H leadership discovery/learning event, better known as a Teen Conference.

The Maine delegates that attended National 4-H Congress in 1992, the first Maine 4-H delegation I chaperoned, were the first to suggest a state 4-H Teen Conference on the trip home from Chicago and I had only been on the job for a little more than a month at that time! Then I heard it again from the teens that attended the National 4‑H Conference in April 1993, specifically, from Kathy. “We want a Leadership event for teens, where we can sleep overnight, attend workshops, and have a dance and a banquet, and get to know each other,” she told me. She said it was one of her goals for Maine to have such an event. I soon learned, as noted above, that when this individual says something is one of her goals, it will happen!

As it turned out, Kathy was already part of a team in Knox-Lincoln County that had been planning and implementing a teen conference since 1989, which they called “The Mid-Coast 4-H Teen Conference.”

Experience counts! So, the first thing I did was to meet with Kathy to hear more of her thoughts about this idea and to develop a plan for making it happen. Based on that discussion, I promised to get the 4‑H system excited about a state 4-H Teen Conference and she agreed to help find a group of teens to be on the planning committee. It snowballed from there.

Primarily due to, and through her leadership, Maine held the first statewide 4-H Teen Conference that had been held in Maine since 1982 on June 23-26, 1994; the first ever, BTW, to be planned and implemented by a committee of teens. Not only that, but these teens planned it using online meeting technology, which was new to Maine at that time, allowing the committee to bounce its ideas off teens from across Maine, both to build a stronger conference and to build excitement for participation. To my knowledge, it was the first time something like this was ever attempted, especially by teens, in Maine or elsewhere!

After conducting a highly successful conference, the planning committee organized itself into a State 4-H Teen Council, which planned and implemented wonderfully successful, annual conferences into the 2000’s. Since I left Maine in 1999, I’m uncertain how long this program continued but in the five years I worked with it, the teens, following the model established during Kathy’s tenure, included something special each year. During the 1994 conference, for example, and due largely to Kathy’s leadership, the teens held an international meeting about 4-H via a US Aid Satellite connection with representatives from Costa-Rica and Thailand (we wanted Botswana to join the meeting as well, but they were unable to do so due to technical difficulties).

In the “post-Kathy” years, the teens made US Representative John Baldacci, who later served as Governor of Maine, an honorary Maine 4‑H Member; listened to, learned from, performed with, and enjoyed the music and stories offered by Abu the Flute Maker, an African-American artist from Baltimore, Maryland, who uses discarded items, such as bottles, cans and boxes, even bedposts and porch columns, to make musical instruments — the ultimate reuse, recycle lesson; and spread throughout Orono and Bangor to perform community service projects. All this was in addition to sleeping in the dorms, attending learning sessions, having banquets, and holding dances — just like the original concept first proposed by Kathy Watier back in 1993.

Katherine Watier Ong as a young 4-Her

See? She was making bread even back THEN! Bad pun. Sorry.

Kathy joined 4-H in 1983, when she was just 7. Her aunt, and babysitter, organized a 4-H Club that year whose members included, in addition to Kathy, her brother Matt and four cousins. They called their club the Pine Needles 4-H Club of Union, Maine. She was the club secretary that first year and then served as Club President the following year, when she was EIGHT. When asked recently what 4-H projects she took as a 4-H member, she responded, “I had a variety of traditional 4-H projects (sheep, baking, sewing, pigs, chickens, ducks, gardening, woodworking, etc). But when I turned 13 I got involved in different 4-H projects.”

Hmm, she apparently is also a master of understatement.

When she was 13, in 1989, she got involved with the planning and implementation of the Mid-Coast 4-H Teen Conference and stayed with that until we organized the state 4-H Teen Conference in 1994. When she learned that the world was losing its rainforests — thousands of acres of forests being cut down and burned to make land available for cattle farming — she made it a goal to put a stop to it … or, at least, slow it down! And remember what I said about what happens when she says something is a goal!

First, she learned all she could about the rainforests and their plight and then, now armed with this knowledge, started to educate her friends and classmates about the issue and its global consequences. Then at age 16, she started what she refers to as her “4-H project,” a nonprofit called “The Rainforest Challenge.” Through this organization, she educated more young people about the plight of the rainforests and motivated them to take action, to purchase acres of the tropical rainforest through “The Children’s Rainforest” in Costa Rica and the “Rainforest Preservation Fund” in Brazil, to help save the forests.

In fact, it had always been a dream (should I say “goal”?) of hers to travel to Costa-Rica to see the rainforest and, over Valentine’s Day, 2009, she and her brother, Matt, did just that. In fact, he met his future bride, they since married, on that trip.

You would think that with such deep involvement and success in saving our environment someone would have taken notice! Well, actually, they did. Maine 4-H sent her to National 4-H Congress in 1993 as its State Citizenship Winner and of the County 4-H Awards 4-H Members in Knox-Lincoln County can hope to earn, one is called the “Katherine Watier GREEN Award.”

If you are interested in winning the Katherine Watier Green Award, according to the Knox-Lincoln County 4-H Office, in addition to being a 4-H Member, here is the skinny:

Katherine Watier Green Award: This is an individual or group award chosen from project records, 4-H Resume, Portfolio, and 4-H volunteer recommendation. This individual promotes sound environmental practices and serves as a role model to others. Each applicant shall present in their project record or in 4-H story form, how they use the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” practice or other sound environmental practices in their project. This can include photos, drawings, videos, public speaking, etc.

Hmm, I wonder why no one has ever named an award after me!

So, did she leave 4-H behind after “graduating” from 4-H membership? Not likely! In addition to serving on the planning committees for both National 4-H Congress and National 4-H Conference (not sure about Congress but she was certainly the first Maine teen to serve on the Conference Planning Committee), she made 4-H part of her undergraduate studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts! Knowing that 4-H, nationally, has traditionally struggled with keeping teenagers involved, she researched the problem for her social psychology bachelor’s degree thesis. After being awarded her B.S., another goal reached, she moved to Washington, D.C. to work on a National 4-H Council Internship followed by a yearlong assignment as a member of Council’s staff.

“I then started (and completed) a graduate program [Master’s Degree] at Georgetown University focused on tech marketing and business.” Did I mention that thing about Kathy being a master of understatement? You see, her Master’s Thesis, and this was LONG before stuff like Google Glass came along, was looking at consumer adoption of wearable computers! Oh, and BTW, this appears to have been the first consumer study ever done of individual interest in wearable computers. She continues:

I did my graduate program while working and transitioned to solely focusing on digital marketing — initially for non-profits here in DC (where I spent 10 years of my career) and then as the VP of Online Strategy and Market Insights at Ketchum — running their digital marketing and analytics practice to service their clients globally. For the last almost two years I’ve been running my own business, Watier Ong Strategies where I provide digital marketing strategy, coaching, and training to clients looking to increase their organic search exposure. Some of my clients have included cancer.gov, rollcall.com, wattagnet.com, Razoo.com, and Motory.com.

Harry and Kathy on their wedding day

Harry and Kathy

Did I mention she got married at some point along the way? No? Well, she did. That happened on August 10, 2012, when she married Harry Ong, who, she says, “Isn’t a slouch either.” Kathy explains,

Harry is a professional clarinetist playing with the President’s Own Marine Band. Its primary mission is to provide music to the White House and the Commandant of the Marine Corp. There were about 150 professional clarinetists who auditioned when he won his spot with the band. You’ll see them providing music for the inauguration or state arrivals.

Did I mention they have children? No? Yup, that too! Katherine and Harry are the proud parents of 2 1/2-year-old future 4-H’er, Abigail, a real cutie for sure!

Oh, the terrible twos. I remember them well. Not mine! My son’s! But I digress.

AND just in February this year, this little family went from three to FOUR! Another little girl, future 4‑H’er Annabelle Veronica, joined the bunch at 10:47 p.m. on February 5th, weighing 6 pounds and 10 ounces!

She’s a little cutie, too!

So when Kathy is NOT working, caring for her family, or reminiscing about 4-H, what keeps her busy? Well, in between pregnancies, she dances! “My ultimate passion is dancing. I started dancing at age 4, and spent years dancing with People to People in Maine,” she says. In DC she hung out at Joy of Motion studios until this latest pregnancy, and some ankle issues, slowed her down. “I hope to get back into it after I get (yet more) physical therapy. Luckily my physical therapist is a former professional dancer, so I’m in good hands.”

I’m afraid my pregnant life, with a toddler, and running a business is quite boring. :-) However, we are taking Abbey to dance lessons (she loves dancing and music — I wonder where she gets that from?) and we take family walks with our 8-year-old mixed Lab Sammy. Most of our free time now is attempting to catch up with our friends and family. We travel somewhat regularly to see our in-laws in Maine and Seattle, and we yearly make a trip to LA to see our “extended family” where the family (and Abbey) gets to experience the joy of Disney and I get my beach time.

BTW, when I used the words “future 4-H’er” a few paragraphs ago, I wasn’t kidding! Kathy promises that when Abbey and Annabelle reach “4-H Age,” 4-H will be one of their “out-of-school-time” activities, for sure! Why? Because Kathy says that she wants Abbey and Annabelle to experience what she experienced!

For her, 4‑H “was critical to my development and granted me travel opportunities and experiences that I would not have had otherwise coming from a rural area.” Furthermore, she says that, “4-H taught me leadership and public speaking skills, organizational skills, how to create a strategic plan, apply for grant funding, pitch the press, package and promote a program — along with basic life skills related to farming and Home Ec, etc.

And then she adds, “I credit 4-H for who I am today.

Which means that 4-H can be VERY proud of itself!

Next month, on May 12, Where are they now? will reintroduce you to Maine 4-H Alum Sarah Stoodley!

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University of Maine Cooperative Extension conducts the state’s most successful out-of-school youth educational program through 4-H, a positive youth development program that has been empowering young people in Maine to reach their full potential since 1913.

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