LITTLE ROCK – Four people, including a pair of sisters, were named finalists for the state’s highest 4-H honor, the Governor’s Award.

“Just being nominated for this is an honor and becoming a finalist all the more so,” said Angie Freel, interim 4-H department head for the Cooperative Extension Service, which operates 4-H in Arkansas.

This year’s finalists:

Mary Alice Cole, Izard County.

Cole has excelled in leadership in her time in 4-H, being named a Teen Star, Ambassador, record book winner and was elected a state officer at large and finally elected state president, the first person from Izard County to hold that office.

“Over the last few years, I have seen Mary Alice grow into a true leader,” said Karla Dement, Izard County extension agent for the Division of Agriculture. “She is always willing and eager to lead programs whether it be at our County Day Camps, school programs or assisting the Extension Office Staff in starting new 4-H clubs … Mary Alice has been truly dedicated to the 4-H program.” Cole is majoring in mass communication at Southern Arkansas University. This is her second time as a finalist.

Lane Fritch, Benton County.

Fritch is the current state 4-H president. Her heart runs to both the performing arts and working with youth who cope with shyness.

“It is common to see Lane down on her knees talking or encouraging the youth and asking then about their day and what they like to do,” said Jessica Street, Benton County extension agent. “Being homeschooled sometimes made Lane feel out of place or unapproachable when in groups. Lane says wants to make sure that none of the youth ever experience these kinds of things on her watch.”

Fritch, a seven-year veteran of the 4-H program, is a state camp counselor, state ambassador and was an Arkansas State Officer at large in 2016-17. Rich in vocal talent, Fritch sang the national anthem at the most recent Arkansas State Farm Bureau convention. (see: )

Katie Gardner, Washington County.

Gardner has been with 4-H for 10 years and she has been an exemplar of the youth development that 4-H espouses.

“She is committed to exceeding the expectations of those she serves and is quick to tell others her preparation, skills and success in multiple endeavors are the result of 4-H,” said Washington County extension Staff Chair Berni Kurz. At the University of Arkansas, she serves on the student government’s Freshman Leadership Forum and the Executive Steering Committee of the Razorback Leadership Academy.

She has been an Arkansas State Fair ambassador for four years, devoting 100 hours. Gardner is also a strong advocate for 4-H, playing a key role in persuading the county quorum county to approve funding for a 4-H agent. Gardner is also the most awarded competitor in the history of the pageant of the Miss Arkansas Outstanding Teen pageant and is heavily invested in mentoring the Diamond State Princesses, ages 5-12. This is Gardner’s second time as a finalist. This summer, Gardner has been working in Washington, D.C., as an intern for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Sara Gardner, Washington County.

Sara Gardner has been with 4-H for a decade. She has served as county council president and a state officer, as vice president of the Ozark District. For nine years, Sara Gardner’s work has been guided by her “Pledge to Patriotism” platform. She has spearheaded projects collecting 3,5000 canned food items for homeless veterans, making 7,500 handmade gifts and cards, and spent nine years working on projects with the national cemetery at Fayetteville. Being fluent in Spanish, she has begun sharing the goals and opportunities of 4-H in Hispanic communities. She hopes to work as an attorney for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Sara’s conviction to service defines her. Her resume is impressive, but when you see her in action, you know she is a difference maker,” said Kurz.

Following the interviews, the nominees were hosted for lunch at the Governor’s Mansion by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his wife, Susan, with Wes Ward, Arkansas’ secretary of agriculture, also attending.

The finalists were interviewed June 26 by Chasse Conque, athletic director for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Rita Fleming, chief operating officer for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture; and Rex Nelson, senior editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“The judges were really blown away,” Nelson said. “We are optimistic about our future.”

Conque said that in talking to the nominees “it was a really great morning.”

The award-winner will be announced July 25 during a ceremony at state O-Rama at the UA-Fayetteville campus.

For more information about 4-H in Arkansas, contact a county extension office or visit

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without discrimination.

— Mary Hightower is director of Communication Services at the U of A System Division of Agriculture.