This impact has contributed to, as Assistant Director Joe Kurth puts it, a “tremendous reservoir of good will for 4-H all across Kentucky.”
“I think that the positive experiences and the warm feelings people have for the program that carry on from decade to decade and generation to generation are really what make 4-H so strong,” he said.
4-H was originally conceived as a method for teaching better practices to farm families through their children. But as the nation’s population shifted from rural to urban and suburban, 4-H shifted with it. Today its emphasis is on youth development. Its membership rolls in the state boast nearly 230,000 youth, aged 5 to 19, in all 120 counties, and many of them have never set foot on a farm.
There’s a fervor that bubbles up in former 4-H’ers. Jan Gibson is the third of four generations of 4-H’ers in her family, so it probably comes as no surprise to learn that she turned her passion for the organization into a job. She’s been Perry County’s 4-H youth development agent for the last 32 years. She, her mother, grandmother, and two children, in her words, “bleed green.”
“There’s nothing like this job,” she said. “When one person comes back and says, ‘This meant a lot to me,’ I’m ready to go that much harder, because I feel I’m accomplishing something.”
State Sen. Joey Pendleton bleeds green, too, and often proves it by donning a bright green sport coat. He caught the 4-H fever from his leader-parents and could hardly wait until he turned 9 and could join. Today he wouldn’t have had to wait. Children can join 4-H as Clover Buds as young as the age of 5.
“I attribute where I am today to the 4-H program,” Pendleton said. It was through 4-H that he gained confidence, he said, and learned to compromise and to work with people.
Today, Pendleton continues to work to advance the organization. He was instrumental in acquiring $2 million from the state for camp renovations. And he, like so many former 4-H’ers, has stayed involved as a leader, working as a mentor to the next generation of young people. Fellow Christian Countian Dennis Cannon, now vice president of member and public relations for Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives Inc., was one of the young men he watched develop into a responsible adult.
“4-H provides you with an opportunity to learn and to grow,” said Cannon. “I can directly trace that 4-H experience when I was 9 or 10 years old, giving a horrible first demonstration, to today where I stand up in front of groups of 10,000 to 15,000 people and talk to them. I could not do that, and I would not be doing that, if I weren’t a 4-H alum.”
Basic building blocks…
“In 4-H, you can find something that you’re good at,” Gibson said, referring to the many opportunities afforded youth, no matter what their interests. “Self-confidence, self respect – you’ve got to have those basic building blocks before you can ever build that whole person.”
Through school clubs, community clubs, teen councils, and individual projects, a young person can experiment with countless activities in any of the core curriculum areas: animal science, communications, family and consumer sciences, health, leadership, and natural resources.
“We’re not just cookies and cows anymore,” said Jann Burks, state coordinator for the new Science, Engineering, and Technology program. “Although those are very important traditional things that we want to keep, we also want to enhance them.”
With so many different programs offered to so many young people, 4-H depends not only on its agents, but on adult leaders and experts in the community to make it all work.
“We have 4-H volunteers and agents all over Kentucky who make a difference in the lives of Kentucky youth,” Kurth said. “What I think is critical about the 4-H program is that the child is at the center of what we do. It’s all about the child.”
Make the best better…
4-H will continue to meet the needs of Kentucky’s youth with new, innovative programming. Its agents will continue to pull together the volunteers that make 4-H the rich organization that it is.
But really, it’s the future of 4-H’ers themselves that is most significant. They will be the leaders, the senators and mayors, the CEOs, teachers, and scientists. It’s their future that will show the full impact of 4-H’s influence into the next 100 years.