We have multiple programs that serve youth in 4-H: fun camps; authentic service-learning opportunities for teens; hands-on curriculum that give kids in afterschool settings the chance to be scientists or learn to cook. But for just a moment I'd like to focus our oldest and most tried-and-true youth development experience—our 4-H clubs.
I wasn't in 4-H as a child, but I had a very similar club experience growing up. I don't remember kids being in 4-H in my suburban neighborhood (most were Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts), and what I wanted most was to be a Camp Fire Girl. My friend, Pam Thomson, was a year older and her mom was her Camp Fire club leader. Every morning when I walked to school I passed Pam's house where, to my amazement, there were 10 Blue Bird symbols painted on the driveway, each with the name of a girl in the club. I couldn't wait to join my own Blue Bird club and wear the nifty uniform (blue skirt, white blouse, red vest) that showed I belonged. I had that opportunity in third grade.
My most powerful experiences in Camp Fire came much later when, just as I entered middle school, a mom new to the area stepped in to take leadership of our then struggling group. Mrs. Williams was like no other adult I had ever met. That fall she invited us to a slumber party at her house to kick off the program year. Imagine that—a grown-up inviting me to a slumber party! We stayed up late and she pulled out a big piece of paper, asked us what we wanted to do in the year ahead, and scribed every idea. Talk about feeling empowered! That list became a roadmap to camping adventures, learning skills, writing books, organizing fundraisers, planning trips, and giving service. We worked with younger kids, learned to cook, volunteered at day camp and, over time, developed deep friendships.
What is the Club experience about? It's about independence and discovering who you are. It's about decision making and planning and recognizing the importance of following through on commitments. It's about being part of a team and learning how to be and work with others. It's about struggles and disappointments when things don't go as planned. It's about celebration and recognition when projects are completed and goals are met. It's about learning practical skills like balancing a check book or how to cook, and learning the bigger life skills like compromise and communication. It's about group. It's about belonging. Most importantly, the club experience is about relationships.
4-H club and project leaders sit in a magical place with young people that few other adults enjoy. 4-H adults are an authority, yes, but more so a partner in a youth's journey of learning and discovery. Ideally, they help young people express their ideas, plan and deliver on those plans, and reflect upon their experiences. They listen and encourage, counsel and comfort, challenge and play. More often than not, they're in it for the long-haul, inspiring and witnessing a young person's growth over time. How many places can a kid find that from an adult who's not their parent?
This is the value of our 4-H club experience. It's a place to try new things, to learn, to belong. It's a place to realize who we are and uncover our gifts. It's people who know us, encourage us, challenge us, and care for us. A club can be a life-changing experience. I know this. Thank you, Mrs. Williams.
Marianne (red shirt) with Mrs. Williams (back row with long, blond hair) and their Camp Fire Club during their senior year in high school.
Author - 4-H Youth Development Advisor