When Laila Ampy-Thomas applied for an internship with Virginia Cooperative Extension, she imagined she would work with livestock. Instead, she was introduced to Henrico County 4-H youth development and a career opportunity that blended her passions for working with children and animals.

“As soon as I finished my first lesson with elementary school kids about dairy and saw their excitement about making ice cream, I realized this was something I could see myself doing forever,” she said.

The internship experience inspired Ampy-Thomas to make it the focus of her senior capstone project and to pursue a career in 4-H. After graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in animal and poultry sciences, she has a job lined up to lead 4-H camps for the City of Richmond. In the future, she hopes to earn her master’s degree and find a position as a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent.

“I was unaware of 4-H in my school growing up, and it would have been such a great fit for me,” she said. “I want to ensure that more people living in urban and underdeveloped areas are aware of the amazing opportunities that exist in 4-H.

Ampy-Thomas traces her love for animals back to kindergarten in Chesterfield, where she helped the teacher care for several ducks, snakes, and mice that were classroom pets. In high school at Chesterfield Career and Technical Center, she fell in love with veterinary science courses and decided to pursue her passion in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“I knew Virginia Tech had the best animal science program and the best hands-on experience and professors,” she said. “My classes showed me so many paths for doing what I loved, from being a veterinarian to managing a barn or animal shelter to being a professor or Extension agent.”

While at Virginia Tech, Ampy-Thomas was active in Minorities in Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program, and was president of Sheep and Goat Club. She also volunteered at the swine barn, caring for sows, and with Hokie High Five, welcoming and mentoring first-year students.

After landing her paid internship with Virginia Cooperative Extension in the summer of 2022, Ampy-Thomas worked alongside 4-H Extension agents, leading activities for kids in local schools. With the encouragement of her supervisors, she developed and led a week-long day camp for kids ages 8 to 13. Ampy-Thomas called the camp Making Tracks, and filled it with fun activities and lessons on the care of reptiles, companion animals, and livestock.

As she stood in front of a room full of campers on her own for the first time, Ampy-Thomas was grateful she had seven years of experience as a youth cheerleading coach to guide her.

“I’ve been coaching cheerleading since I was in ninth  grade and I love it,” she said. “My experience in cheer really helps me with 4-H. I’ve already worked a lot with this age group, so I understand how to communicate with and entertain them.”

To help teach campers about companion animals, Ampy-Thomas brought in her bearded dragon, Hiccup, and her dog, Blue, and made dog treats and washcloth puppies with the children. “There are several more bearded dragon owners now because of me,” she joked. The week culminated in a visit to Hidden Triple Oak Farm, where the kids got to see and learn about horses, chickens, pigs, and cows up close.

Ampy-Thomas also helped run Henrico County’s Junior 4-H Camp, a week-long sleepaway camp held at Jamestown 4-H Educational Center. When tasked with planning and leading a class for the students, Ampy-Thomas said there was no question it would be about cheerleading. She taught the kids jumps, tumbling, stunts, and a full cheer routine, and made them all cheer bows for their hair.

“Many of them told me it was the highlight of their day,” she said. “One camper made me cry by saying that Miss Laila always made him feel comfortable and heard. Seeing that what I was doing had an impact on each child really cemented that this is something I want to do for life.”

Associate Extension Agent Carter Humphries ’14, M.S. ’16, who helped supervise Ampy-Thomas during the internship, said many kids are asking if “Miss Laila” will be returning to camp this summer.

“The future of 4-H is bright with Laila in it,” Humphries said. “The youth absolutely loved her. She was extremely creative and showed great leadership skills among the youth she worked with, but also among our Henrico staff, high school interns, and teen counselors. We felt like a colleague was leaving us at the end of her internship. I look forward to having her join us as a fellow 4-H agent one day.”

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