4-H helps kids contribute to the complex world around them

4-H was started in the first decade of the 1900s. Here 4-H members learn how to safely preserve vegetables.
4-H was started in the first decade of the 1900s. Here 4-H members learn how to safely preserve vegetables.
4-H members learn about science, engineering, technology and math through hands-on project work in clubs and conferences.
4-H members learn about science, engineering, technology and math through hands-on project work in clubs and conferences.
School enrichment and after school 4-H programs enhance what kids learn in school.
School enrichment and after school 4-H programs enhance what kids learn in school.
1200 boys and girls belong to the 4-H soccer club in Marion County
1200 boys and girls belong to the 4-H soccer club in Marion County
Volunteer adult leaders like Toni Veeman help kids reach their potential.
Volunteer adult leaders like Toni Veeman help kids reach their potential.
By Kym Pokorny, OSU Extension Service

SALEM, Ore. – When the Tomato Growing Club started in 1902, A.B. Graham had no way of knowing his little endeavor would become 4-H and grow into the largest and most effective youth development organization in the country.

More than a century later, Melanie McCabe, a 4-H youth development educator for Oregon State University Extension Service, helps put in perspective the organization’s role for the 46,500 4-H members around the state, 1,900 of them in Marion County. The variety of programming has increased, she said, but the heart of 4-H remains the same – helping turn kids into adults who understand and contribute to the complex world around them.

“We reach beyond the traditional programs that people think of like livestock and home ec,” said McCabe, who was in 4-H for nine years in a variety of clubs that included beef, ceramics and sewing. “The skills youth learn outside of the project areas are more important than the content of the projects. We spend more time talking about the why.  Why do we do what we do? We want to create well-rounded citizens.”

The entire month of October is a celebration of 4-H, and a perfect time to join up or volunteer. For more information, contact the Marion County Extension office.

Pamela Rose, statewide director of OSU Extension’s 4-H program, said that 4-H helps kids find their “spark.” Volunteer 4-H leaders – 8,000 of them in Oregon – become mentors and guide participants to the project area they’re most passionate about and will build their self-confidence.

McCabe found her spark in public speaking. “I was very shy as a youth,” she said. “4-H allowed me to develop my skills. By the time I was a senior, I was not only serving in leadership roles in 4-H, but also in student government and FFA. Part of that was speaking in public. I was petrified, but now I’m just as comfortable speaking in front of 500 as I am in front of five. It’s a skill I’ve used repeatedly throughout my life.”

Young people can get involved in many activities that catch their interest. If someone is interested in herpetology or entomology and there’s no current club, 4-H faculty put out feelers to find a volunteer in the community who can teach it. If no one steps up, which is rare, the child can go into a different club and explore their passion in an alternate way. Perhaps the budding herpetologist would join the photography club and take photos of snakes and lizards and enter them in the county fair.

In Marion County, 1,200 kids are involved in soccer. Others get to choose from activities like archery and performing arts.  Shooting skills is in the future and computer science is underway. A grant allowed the program to purchase two pairs of virtual reality glasses to use on field trips. Recently, some of the youth toured the Natural History Museum wearing the glasses.

But McCabe reiterates that while kids are engaging in their favorite projects, they’re gaining skills such as leadership, responsibility and team building. Even record keeping and – in some clubs – financial literacy are outcomes of involvement in 4-H. She points to friendship as the pinnacle of her experience.

“People see 4-H as competitive, but the memories I have have nothing to do with competition,” she said. “Most important are the connections I made. The people I grew up with in 4-H, not just in my county, are the strongest connections I have.”

Rose likens 4-H to the hub of a wheel. “Our value resonates from there. As we continue to achieve excellence the wheel keeps turning. People want to be involved, including youth, parents, leaders, community partners. We have support from 4-H alumni who give back by volunteering or donating their time, talent or treasures. Everyone has talents and treasures and 4-H helps children discover theirs.”

The 4-H youth development program is administered by the country’s network of land-grant universities’ extension services – of which Oregon State is one –  and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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