The 4-H program was established more than a century ago as a way to reach rural children with educational programs, opportunities to expand their horizons and develop self-confidence and competence. Although many things have changed over the years, the program continues to help children grow in skills, interests and experience.
4-H is a global network of organizations that provide youth development experiential learning programs with the goal of developing citizenship, leadership, responsibility and life skills. In the United States, 4-H is administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and its programs are conducted in partnership with the Cooperative Extension System. UConn Extension is housed in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. In Connecticut, 4-H is as diverse as the population it serves, according to Bonnie Burr, assistant director of UConn Extension.
Burr, who grew up in Brookfield as a 4-H dairy club member, says, “4-H has adapted to the interests of youths and volunteer leaders, but its mission remains the same. For example, we wanted to teach kids about food safety and locally grown and processed foods, so we established the New England 4-H Grilled Cheese Contest. It teaches science, food preparation and public speaking, but it offers it in a way that kids see as cool and fun.”
4-H is an enduring mixture of tradition and innovation. Elsie Woolam, a lifelong resident of South Windsor, has worked with the program for sixty-five years. As a leader of 4-H clubs and founder and director of the popular Hartford Country 4-H Camp, she has seen the program change to meet the interests of suburban and urban children. She also knows that the basic needs of young people to make friends, learn new things, have fun and develop their own personalities are timeless. In a world where adults decry the tendencies of technology to isolate and limit children, Woolham helps them interact and broaden themselves through hands-on programs.
William Jacobs, who was recognized as an 4-H outstanding volunteer for the Northeast Region, teaches at Whitney East/West high school. He works with teens with special needs and through the ACES 4-H Club helps students develop confidence, communicate more effectively and enjoy events and competitions beyond their community.
4-H is alive and well in Connecticut. The most recent enrollment figures show 21,301 members, including campers and participants in programs at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in Bloomfield. Connecticut 4-H boasts 1,458 adult volunteers and 169 clubs, with members in every town in the state. While 4-H clubs were traditionally tied to projects with animals or specific skills, more than seventy of the currently registered clubs focus on non-agricultural topics. The state’s single largest club, located in New Haven County and originally established by legendary orchard farmers Albert and Barbara Bishop, is the 4-H Apple Pi Robotics Club, a club for boys and girls that wins robotics competitions around the country.
STEM is a term very much on the minds and lips of parents, educators and young people alike. To address this growing interest, 4-H hosts an annual statewide conference, 4-H Adventures in STEM, in Storrs. This year’s event will be Saturday, November 4, 2017, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Hands-on workshops will offer youths aged twelve to eighteen the opportunities to develop new skills in science, technology, engineering and math.
While the 4-H STEM program is state-of-the-art, its roots are in the agricultural engineering, small gas engine and genetics projects that have long been key parts of the 4-H program core.
4-H Environmental Science Day in collaboration with the Connecticut Audubon Center in Glastonbury, held August 21, 2017, brought youths aged ten and over and leaders together for a lively day of exploring the Connecticut River floodplain.
4-H is best known for programs related to animals, and today’s youth are as engaged as ever in loving and caring for livestock and pets. Statewide sheep, goat, dairy and beef clinics are offered in Storrs, and a new offering, the Youth Equestrian of Excellence Program, brings together members of the Pony Clubs of American, Future Farmers of America and 4-H to attend events and horse camps, engage in public speaking and promote horse safety.
Poultry species, especially chickens, are very popular with families today. Youths involved with poultry clubs have the opportunity to compete at the Southern New England Poultry Show. The New England 4-H Dog Clinic is a one-day event where dog project members learn learn general knowledge about dogs, showmanship and dog obedience while meeting 4-H members from all the New England states.
The 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in Bloomfield is a forty-year old institution that changes and adapts to the interests and needs of suburban and urban youths and families. More than 10,000 children visit the farm each year and learn basic principles of food production, plant science, animal husbandry and environmental education. The farm serves school groups throughout the year and hosts its own 4-H club that helps develop the resources on the sprawling property that includes barns, gardens and an orchard.
As times change, 4-H changes too while honoring and adhering to the basic principles of hands-on learning, learning by doing and learning through working with others. Whether constructing a robot, grooming a horse or tossing a salad with ingredients from a local garden, these experiences help young people enjoy their lives, find career paths, make friends and gain confidence. In Connecticut, 4-H is in every community, touching children and adults with real life experiences that last a lifetime.