The state of Nebraska labeled itself as “The Good Life” for a reason, and with the majority of it being made up of small towns full of “small-town kids”, they couldn’t agree more. These kids are built in a close-knit community that only adds to the potential they have to grow into the outstanding, responsible, and accomplished adults that they are meant to be. Growing up takes a village and having the actual Village of Merna behind you as you explore your way through life, is a blessing. From experience, for BaiLee McMillian, it was. While growing up in Merna, BaiLee attended Anselmo-Merna Public School, and it was there she got to meet Barbara Cooksley.
BaiLee said, “I participated in the TeamMates Mentoring program at Anselmo-Merna public school from fourth grade through my senior year in high school. At first, I was a little nervous and shy when I met my mentor, Barb Cooksley but soon after, we instantly clicked. We looked for things we thought we could do together while meeting for an hour at lunchtime. After many attempted craft projects, we found out that neither of us was crafty, so we started sharing thoughts about interesting books that we have read and showed pictures and stories of places we have visited. We have several of the same interests, two of which are living on a ranch, and being advocates for Nebraska beef, so calving season on our respective ranches was also always a favorite topic for both of us.”
They were able to do more activities together, Barbara shared, “While school was in session, we spent one hour each week together; starting with lunch at school, talking, playing computer games, reading, working on jigsaw puzzles, playing basketball, and walking around the school track,” but that is not the only thing she got to see from BaiLee.
According to Barbara, “BaiLee loved the “hands-on” required for animal care, first holding the animal being administered to, to being the one doing the treatment herself. We spent a lot of time talking about cattle during calving season and comparing our numbers! Early in our years together she talked of being a veterinarian and was the “go-to” person her father would call on for help with the livestock at the ranch.”
BaiLee added, “I did not wait to give back to the youth in my community. I served as a Jr. Leader of the horse committee for the Four Corners 4-H club where I have mentored younger members since the seventh grade. Then as a junior in high school, I volunteered to be the Jr. Leader for the 4-H younger members (Clover Kids), and now as a junior in college, I am a project leader for my 4-H club concentrating on the Horse, Sheep, Range Management and Veterinary Science projects.”
“Her work ethic was evident from the start. She had daily chores at the ranch, feeding and caring for her horses, cats, and dogs. As a rancher’s daughter she was always on call to help with cattle care, calving, branding, fencing, and mowing hay for winter feed for the cattle. I watched BaiLee grow from a rural ranch kid to an accomplished young adult,” added Cooksley.
Backing up Barbara’s statement, BaiLee said, “We worked in our school’s concession stands together (wearing our matching TeamMates t-shirts), to raise money for our chapter. Proceeds from these concession stands were earmarked for senior scholarships.
I was fortunate to receive one of these scholarships upon graduation and had great respect for the hard work and fun that went into the college tuition money I received. Because of all the years of great experiences in the TeamMates Mentoring program, and seeing the impact Barb had upon me, I decided I had some good qualities to share too. I participated in sports, Quiz Bowl, FFA, 4-H, and I joined our high school HERO mentoring program. I met with my mentee every Wednesday before school. My time was well spent with this Kindergartener as we talked about school, our favorite subjects, our love for animals, and whatever came up in this 5-year-old’s life.”
Witnessing the great person BaiLee was growing to be, Barbara knew from the beginning that the role she played in BaiLee’s life was important, and being from TeamMates, specifically, she said, “I was to be another responsible adult in her life; someone she grew to trust and share experiences with,” and that is just what their relationship became.
BaiLee felt the same way about Barb, she said, “I was/am able to talk to Barb about anything that came up in school, or in life. She has become one of my dearest friends! I always enjoyed seeing her in the grandstands, supporting me during my many activities, and she was and still is, available if I need someone to talk to.”
Barbara started as a confidant, an ear to hear BaiLee, and eventually became a part of BaiLee’s future, an aspect of her dream. Cooksley said, “BaiLee asked me to be a reference when she applied to vet school as her TeamMates mentor and has informed me that she has been accepted into the class of 2026 of the Nebraska Professional Program in Veterinary Medicine!”
According to BaiLee, “TeamMates has impacted me immensely by teaching me communication skills, promptness, confidentially, and many more tools that I am and will continue to use in my future. I am so thankful my parents encouraged me to participate in the TeamMates Mentoring program at Anselmo-Merna school.”
Here at TeamMates, we consider ourselves lucky to be able to provide the jump-start that stories, like BaiLee and Barbara’s, need to flourish into the journey they are destined to be.