But what does an organization with rural roots offer today’s tech-savvy youth? Modern 4-H project areas include science, technology, engineering, health, citizenship, and of course, agriculture, yet its expansive reach is only part of the reason the program continues to be relevant in an ever-changing world.
Regardless of the project or the club, all 4-H programs include mentoring and career readiness. The organization has long focused on helping young people gain confidence, learn how to work well with others, endure challenges, and stick with a job until it’s done well. Backed by a network of more than 100 public universities and even more volunteers and professionals, the organization creates connections often absent in other forms of learning — with the ultimate goal of growing leaders.
For Whitson, the face-to-face experience with volunteers is an important aspect of 4-H. “Every day we’re losing skills, real life skills. We think we can somehow replace everything with Google…but we can’t.” The 4-H model brings kids together in small groups offering the kinds of hands-on learning most youth don’t get until university. For Whitson, that’s key. “Technology has its place, but it will never replace the human element, the ability to connect with one another and build relationships…you can’t do that with a screen.”
Children who join 4-H select a club, choose a project, and identify their project’s goal. Throughout the year, they work towards this goal and learn as much as they can about their project along the way. According to Whitson, “that’s their accomplishment, that’s the measure of their own success — what they’ve learned.”
“If we don’t teach our children the importance of contributing to a community, then the community fails.”
Scholarships and bursaries support this learning, along with opportunities for skill-building camps, goal setting trips, public speaking contests, and achievement certificates. 4-H is markedly affordable given that volunteers fill local positions. In the US there is no registration or membership fee. In Canada, the cost is about $75 to $90 per club for a year’s worth of programming. Field trips are generally free and many overnight camps are reimbursable.
Parent opportunities with 4-H also abound, although no one is required to volunteer. Getting on board can enrich the experience, Whitson says, and can help build skills for parents who never had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves.
Most 4-H clubs also connect with their communities through volunteer efforts like taking animals to nursing homes or sharing their knowledge through family fairs and parades. Whitson acknowledges this community connection may be the most important of all. “If we don’t teach our children the important of contributing to a community, then the community fails.”