National 4-H Week celebrates country’s largest youth organization

October 3, 2017
4-H summer camp includes learning to canoe. Photo by Stephen Ward.
4-H summer camp includes learning to canoe. Photo by Stephen Ward.

CORVALLIS, 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, as National 4-H week ramps up, Karissa Dishon, assistant professor of 4-H youth development at Oregon State University Extension Service, puts in perspective the organization’s role for the 46,500 4-H members around the state.

“From the street view, I think what surprises most people is the variety of projects we offer,” she said. “I tell them about robotics, computer programming, basketball and surfing clubs. Yes, we do cows and cooking, too, but the best part of 4-H is that project areas are limitless.”

The entire month of October is a celebration of 4-H, and a perfect time to join up or volunteer. Contact your local Extension office for more information

The variety of programming has increased, but the heart of 4-H remains the same, helping turn kids into citizens who understand and contribute to the complex world around them.

“We give them cool, fun things to do and then flip in the vegetables,” said Dishon, who participated in 4-H for nine years. “If we’re doing it right, they are learning about the subject but, whether they know it or not, they’re gaining life skills.”

It worked for her. Although part of a loving family, Dishon said she chose a rocky road as a teenager. All along she was tending to and showing her horse in OSU Extension’s 4-H program. Eventually, she realized her club leader saw something in her.

“I needed someone outside my family who cared about me,” she said. “4-H saved my life. I went from making the wrong choices and hanging out with the wrong people to saying, “Wait a minute, this is not what I want my story to be. If these adults care about me, I must be worth it.”

Pamela Rose, statewide director of OSU Extension’s 4-H program, said that 4-H helps kids find their “spark” like it did for Dishon. Volunteer 4-H leaders – 8,000 of them in Oregon – become mentors.

Young people can get involved in many activities that spark 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 class 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.

But it’s the lessons learned beyond subject areas that last, said Melanie McCabe, a 4-H youth development educator who was in 4-H for nine years. She points to friendship as the pinnacle of her experience, as well as leadership.

“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.”

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.

Author: Kym Pokorny
Source: Pamela Rose; Melanie McCabe; Karissa Dishon