4-H changes lives

4-H creates opportunity for young people to grow into leaders.

4-H programs have been in existence for over 100 years, originating in Ohio in 1902 when A. B. Graham formalized the club structure that is still intact today. Like other units of the Cooperative Extension System, 4-H brings research from land-grant universities, like Michigan State University, to individuals where they live through research-based programs. National 4-H statistics show that more than six million youth, 611,800 volunteers, 3,500 professionals and 25 million alumni work together to create the hands-on learning experiences designed to grow life skills.

Through 4-H, youth have many opportunities to grow and take the lead on their own learning, setting and achieving goals with confidence. 4-Hers chart their own course, explore important issues and define their place in the world with the help of 4-H volunteers and staff. Many times young people who age out of 4-H membership continue in 4-H as leaders because of their experience. 4-H changes lives and opens doors for so many young people. The following are the words of one past 4-Her who went on to become a leader.

 “This year, I had the kind of experience that we as 4-H leaders are here for. Some days, or honestly even years, it may seem as though you are chasing everyone, and you may question if all the time and frustration is worth it. I know that I have. Then you meet a 4-Her and experience the wonder and endless possibilities through their eyes, and you know that all the sacrifices are worth it.

I am the leader of a small 4-H club and this year we were excited to gain two new members. These girls come from a very humble background, and it was due to their neighbors that they were introduced to 4-H. Last fall I was approached by a gentleman I knew who wanted to see these girls join 4-H. He knew my background and what 4-H had done for me, and wanted to know if he could, as he put it, sponsor the girls. He and his wife helped drive the girls to meetings, and that spring gave them a lamb that had been rejected by its mother. They bottle fed it to good health and a 4-H project was born. We worked as a club on one craft project a month, and by fair everyone had a box ready for the fair.

“I will admit that I had no high expectations going into our county fair. I’ve had members in the past that seemed to need constant supervision over chores at the fair, and I assumed this situation would be the same. Oh, how I was proved wrong. By the time I came to check pens each morning, their chores were either done or they were there doing them. Then our younger members started ‘competing’ with each other to see who could get their chores done first and would then clean the other member’s pens. This competition started because of that sweet, new 4-her wanting to surprise her new friends.

“Then came the day that every livestock exhibitor has worked months for: show day. She was so nervous! Before her class, she kept saying she was afraid her lamb would get away. In the ring she clung to that lamb as if it were her last friend on earth! Her face was pale and she was obviously a bundle of raw nerves. She had placed third out of three in showmanship, and when they handed her that white ribbon, her face lit up like a Christmas tree. She was bouncing with excitement as she came out the gate, and her first question was ‘Can I do it again?’

“Seeing her, I was reminded of myself. I, too, had started 4-H much like her. My uncle, who was a farmer, had given me two steers in trade for picking rocks. I was so nervous before showing them, but when I came out of the ring the only thing I could think of was doing it again. My steer project grew into small herd of registered cattle that actually paid for my college education. I started filling out awards forms and went on trips, which led to joining advisory boards and meeting new people around the country and even internationally. Through 4-H, I had an opportunity like no other. As a child, 4-H had been my escape from the realities of home. It wasn’t until my teen years that I realized that 4-H was helping me build my new future.

”I relived that experience as I looked at this young girl. The remainder of the week she must have asked hundreds of questions. How do the older kids go on their trips? Could she go to camps and Exploration Days too? Could we do a craft that she had seen in the barns? She, too, has found her escape from reality and is just beginning to grasp a future that is now bright with possibilities. It’s the moments like that which make all the early fair mornings, late night calls, farm visits and paperwork hassles worth it.

“4-H isn’t just a project at the fair, it’s about creating leaders. Giving these kids the skills, character and opportunities to rise up and become the amazing individuals they each are capable of becoming. Anything is possible and nothing is out of reach, no matter who you are or where you come from. Despite it all, we are making a difference in these kids’ lives. So bring on the coffee, we have leaders to build up!”

For more information on 4-H, visit the Michigan State University Extension and 4-H Youth Development websites.

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