Inspired and in-person: face-to-face programming returns for Michigan 4-H

Summer programming is back in full force for 4-H programs across the state as in-person programming returns in 2021.

Two 4-H'ers holding up their art work they created at a 4-H event.
Presque Isle 4-H'ers showing their artwork from a 4-H summer camp activity.

As it does every year, the summer of 2021 brought the return of many childhood favorites — freedom from school, a chance to sleep in and time to enjoy the warm summer sunshine outdoors with friends and family. But this year the return of summer brought something more for those involved in Michigan 4-H: the return of face-to-face programming.

As it did nearly everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed operations for Michigan 4-H, the youth development program of Michigan State University Extension. In March 2020, MSU Extension modified all in-person Michigan 4-H programming to a virtual setting in the interest of the health and safety of 4-H youth, volunteers, staff and their families. Though MSU Extension’s commitment to serving Michigan youth remained steadfast and staff members continued to meet the needs of the state through online programming, the lack of in-person events was heartbreaking for Michigan 4-H professionals and families alike.

Eager to return to face-to-face programming, MSU Extension professionals worked diligently to chart a path toward resuming in-person activities. In March 2021, Michigan 4-H began allowing limited in-person activities that could be conducted independently or as a single household. As a result, counties were able to hold fair livestock weigh-ins and community service projects. On May 17, Michigan 4-H resumed in-person programs that met the public health guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the MSU Community Compact.

“Through our face-to-face parameters, we were able to offer club leaders, volunteers, staff and others in the 4-H community an opportunity to resume in-person programming while still protecting one another and the community,” said Jake DeDecker, state leader for Michigan 4-H. “We’re so grateful to those who carefully considered our face-to-face requirements and modified programs with these important safety precautions, allowing us to get back to in-person engagements with our 4-H friends and family.”

With the May announcement, clubs, leaders and 4-H professionals sprang into action. Summer is traditionally the busiest time of the year for 4-H programming and this year was no different. The range of summer 4-H programs increased further when on June 30, Michigan 4-H lifted all in-person meeting requirements for face-to-face interactions.

4-H Summer Rec: A staple in Presque Isle County

For more than 20 years, Presque Isle MSU Extension has been offering the 4-H Summer Rec program to youth ages 8 to 12. The six-week program provides youth with a daily dose of fun and education as they take part in field trips, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) activities, games, community service and more. In addition to the daily recreation activities, attendees are provided with a healthy breakfast and lunch.

After taking a hiatus in 2020, the 4-H Summer Rec program was back in 2021 with nearly 60 participants. Among the program’s many adventures, youth explored the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan in Alpena, toured a wastewater treatment facility in Rogers City and visited Carmeuse Lime & Stone, also in Rogers City. They learned about careers, owl pellets and the history of chocolate while enjoying beach days, scavenger hunts and summer sports. They even spent time giving back to the community by removing invasive plants from a public beach.

Presque Isle 4-H'ers standing in the bucket of a piece of equipment while on a field trip.
Presque Isle 4-H'ers on a field trip during 4-H Summer Rec

“The 4-H Summer Rec program is such a blessing to our community. Children who would be home by themselves while parents work are given a chance to interact in person with others,” said Deedra Haselhuhn, Presque Isle County 4-H parent. “To learn about our community, to do service projects and to experience field trips to places they would never get to see. The hands-on experience is so valuable at these ages.”

“This program is the best thing that has happened to Rogers City children,” said another participant’s parent. “Thank you to all involved and all staff from the bottom of my heart!”

Creating camp chronicles at MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center

MSU Extension’s Tollgate Farm and Education Center is a 160 acre farmstead in Novi. Surrounded by the metro Detroit area, Tollgate provides people young and old an opportunity to experience the natural world and agriculture amid the urban environment. This hands-on learning environment is also home to one of the largest 4-H day camps in the state. Each year, hundreds of youth converge at Tollgate to experience the fun and excitement of 4-H summer camp.

“Every week we have a different theme of camp, from vet science to survival camp,” said Mike Mathis, director of MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center. “We’re so excited to be offering these experiences again this year and meeting with youth face-to-face.”

With an abbreviated period to plan and prepare for summer camp, Tollgate’s summer programming is running on a shortened schedule; still, nearly 230 youth ages 4 to 19 have taken part. Camp themes in 2021 include Earth Explorers, Green Science Adventure, Splish Splash Water Camp and Outdoor Adventure Camp. All programs are being operated completely outdoors.

Youth at a Tollgate camp.
Youth at a Tollgate camp

“Téah learned so much from the vet science camps,” said one parent of a Tollgate 4-H summer camp participant. “She was exposed to so much advanced science through dissections — stuff she may never get to see or do in school! Tollgate is such a fantastic place, we appreciate the opportunities you provide!”

Helping to operate the Tollgate camps are 45 teen volunteers who serve as camp stewards. Stewards are teens ages 13 to 19 who act as volunteer assistants to the educational leaders and as role models for campers. Stewards have a deep knowledge of the farm and the educational camp program and develop skills they can use in the future in their academic and professional careers.

“Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be a steward for the Animal Farm Camp,” said one teen volunteer. “I really enjoyed working with everyone and I had a great time.”

4-H Swim School success in Charlevoix County

When you live in the Great Lakes State, water safety is important. In Boyne City, MSU Extension helps to make this important skill a reality each summer through their 4-H Swim School. The program offers swim lessons and water safety instruction on the shores of Lake Charlevoix, helping youth learn to swim and consider currents and other environmental factors in the natural world.

Eight sessions of the four-week swim school were offered over the summer, delivering swim lessons to 47 youth ages 5 to 14. Leading the course was 18-year-old 4-H’er Ally Herrick, a certified life guard, who took time to connect with each student in the course.

“On the first day of swim school, a special needs youth in attendance definitely didn’t want to go into the water,” explained Leah LaVanway, Charlevoix County MSU Extension 4-H program coordinator. “She sat with him on the beach and got to know more about him and what his interests were.”

Life guard instructing a swimmer on a raft
Life guard Ally Herrick on a raft instructing a participant in 4-H Swim School

Through this conversation, Herrick learned the young man loved a toy fish he had brought with him to swim school. Herrick talked with the young man about fish: different types of fish, what fish eat and how they live in water. After discussing their habitat, Herrick asked if they should take the fish to the water to play. The young man was hesitant but followed her into the water where they tossed the toy fish back and forth, going out a little deeper each time. At the end of the first lesson, the parents were so impressed Herrick had gotten him into the water, even convincing him to put his face into the water.

“His parents couldn’t thank and praise her enough,” said LaVanway. “At the end of summer, he was doing bobs in the water and learning basic strokes, but each lesson ended with playing hide and seek with the toy fish in the water. The parents and child said they couldn’t wait for next summer.”

Looking ahead

With the end of summer nearing, MSU Extension is looking ahead to favorite fall 4-H activities and planning for an eventful 2022. While the shifting COVID-19 pandemic may create the need to modify operations (as it did on August 3 when the mask requirement was reinstated for all indoor 4-H activities), MSU Extension remains hopeful mitigation steps such as mask wearing will allow face-to-face interactions to continue.

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