Rowing Out of Her Shell

A teen girl smiling, wearing sunglasses and holding a rowing oar. A man and woman with two girls standing in front of a kayak. Blue, orange, and white kayaks sitting on sand. A group of children standing on sand and wearing lifejackets, looking out across water. Two girls wearing life jackets. Red, orange, yellow and blue kayaks with children rowing on them in the water.
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Clubs help 4-H’ers develop socially

Story by Nathan Gregory • Photos by Kevin Hudson

Rainey Dunsford says she was shy when she joined Jackson County 4-H in 2022, but those closest to her would say one year has made a big difference.

The 11-year-old homeschooler’s parents, Ashley and Travis Dunsford, wanted to encourage her to make new friends and try new things. When they heard about a 4-H open house meeting near them, they saw it as a potential outlet for Rainey.

There, they met Kim Gowdy, a Mississippi State University Extension agent in Jackson County. Since then, Rainey has become involved in her local 4-H livestock and robotics clubs, as well as Junior Master Gardeners.

“She has done a complete 180 since being involved with 4-H,” Gowdy says. “Her involvement with 4-H has boosted her self-esteem and improved her leadership skills, and her confidence has skyrocketed.”

She’s getting firsthand experience as a leader in another 4-H activity: Rainey is junior vice president of the Jackson County “Otters” 4-H Kayak Club—the second chartered 4-H kayak club in Mississippi and the only one in the coastal region.

“I’ve made a lot of friends in the kayak club,” Rainey says. “It’s fun to be outdoors and not indoors playing games.”

The group, comprised of a dozen junior and senior 4-H’ers in Jackson County, kayaks in the Pascagoula River delta marsh and the creeks of Escatawpa. Gowdy says they meet monthly and learn the basics of kayaking, water safety, and conservation. In addition, the club members learn outdoor safety, the parts of a kayak and canoe, paddling basics, and environmental stewardship.

“I had never kayaked before in my life, but I was so excited to offer this program because I knew there would definitely be an interest,” Gowdy says. “We had an outpouring of families wanting to participate.”

Travis Dunsford compliments Gowdy’s leadership and credits her with helping boost his daughter’s self-confidence.

“Ms. Kim makes failing fun,” he says. “She goes out there and gets in the kayak and will dump herself out just to show the kids there’s nothing to be afraid of. I think she takes the fear away and gives them more encouragement. Ms. Kim shows them, and not just teaches them, that it’s okay to make mistakes.”

Gowdy adds that 4-H clubs teach young people they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

“I love being out on the water and the challenge of maneuvering through uncharted waters to learn more about our environment and our community,” she says. “The smiles on the kids’ faces when we first got out in the water were so awesome to witness, because many of these kids had the interest but didn’t think it was possible because they didn’t own a kayak.”

Gowdy says the kayak club is also teaching them the true essence of the 4-H pledge—lending their hands to larger service.

“These kids help one another while kayaking and lend encouraging words to others when they get frustrated or feel like they can’t complete a task while kayaking,” she says. “They are also lending a hand by doing community outreach, such as trash pickup around the loading and docking areas, to keep our community looking clean.”

The range of clubs and activities 4-H offers to young Mississippians is one reason Rainey feels she is quickly developing her public speaking and social skills.

“Being in 4-H has boosted my self-confidence,” she says. “It has made me stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

“Jackson County 4-H Kayak Club discusses new programs” | July 19, 2023


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