WASHINGTON – Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Danielle Wnek, a crewmember at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, New Jersey, attended 13 schools before graduating from high school in 2000.
Wnek was born in Cleveland, where she said she had a tough upbringing, surrounded by drug use and instability.
“I did not come from a career-oriented family,” said Wnek. “After high school I hung around for a while, but by the time I was 21 years old, I was tired of living with insecurity. I wanted to break the cycle I was stuck in, and do something better with my life.”
Wnek said she changed course in 2003 when she enlisted in the Coast Guard.
“I joined the Coast Guard to change the path I was on, to better shape my future,” she said.
Now, after more than 11 years of Coast Guard service, Wnek is using her off-duty time to help children build foundations for confident and fulfilling lives.
Wnek said she looks back on the influence her upbringing had on her outlook toward life before she joined the Coast Guard. Growing up with a narrow life vision inspired her, she said, to help educate children about opportunity.
To accomplish this, Wnek established a Cloverbuds chapter in Cape May County, New Jersey. An extension of the national 4-H club, Cloverbuds is is intended for children younger than 8 years old.
“I started Cloverbuds because I looked back at my childhood and realized kids need a different perspective than the one I grew up with,” Wnek said. “You don’t need to wait until you’re an adult to learn about compassion, hard work, responsibility and opportunity.”
The Cloverbuds program is an opportunity for children to get an early start on a positive life, she said.
“The Cloverbuds and 4-H programs are about learning a sense of community, and giving kids something safe and meaningful to do,” Wnek said. “It’s about giving kids a sense of purpose.”
Wnek’s equine-focused Cloverbuds program helps teach life skills and nurture positive self-esteem in children.
“We run our meetings out of Fox Run Farm, in Cape May Court House, where we board horses,” said Wnek. “The kids all help care for the horses, and in return, learn vital life skills like compassion, responsibility and the positive results they can achieve through hard work.”
Wnek’s 4-year-old daughter is part of the Cloverbuds group, and Wnek said she embraces the opportunity to deter her daughter, along with the other Cloverbuds, from gender stereotypes.
“I want my daughter to grow up and know there is more to life than painted nails and pink tights,” said Wnek. “It makes me proud to see her get up in the morning, pull on her dirty boots and show excitement to help out in the barn. All the kids in Cloverbuds enjoy working with the horses.”
Learning Skills for Life
Many of the life skills Wnek teaches the Cloverbuds parallel the attributes Coast Guardsmen embody.
“In the Coast Guard, we serve in the spirit of our core values: honor, respect and devotion to duty,” said Wnek. “In the Coast Guard, we are all shipmates who serve together for the greater good. My goal is to inspire similar values in the children in hope they will carry them into adulthood.”
The group’s spirit for community service and educational opportunities extends beyond the horse barn.
The group recently participated in a community Christmas parade, and is planning projects leading up to next summer’s 4-H fair, where all the children can show off the results of their hard work with demonstrations and displays.
“I encourage the Cloverbuds to work with the older kids who are in 4-H,” said Wnek. “I believe fostering these relationships can lead to a lifetime of good leadership and interpersonal skills for both the older kids and the Cloverbuds.”
Overall, Wnek said her goal for Cloverbuds is to provide children the opportunity to have a different perspective. Wnek wants the children to discover that hard work, coupled with a lot of fun and dedication, can provide amazing opportunities like the ones Wnek took advantage of when she took the oath to enlist in the Coast Guard.