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4-H adult volunteers lead through example
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- More than 94,000 Mississippi youth enrolled in 4-H have a lifeline to achievement and purpose because of adult volunteers who help them make their best even better.
“The people in our organization all seem to have one thing in common,” said Harvey Gordon, 4-H youth development specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “They love 4-H and feel a huge need to share the 4-H experience with anyone who will listen.”
Wendy Cawthorn, 4-H volunteer leader in Copiah County, has been involved with the organization for 16 years and has seen her five children benefit from 4-H educational scholarships. She is a high school science teacher who devotes much of her spare time to the 4-H swine project.
“I am an Alabama Gulf Coast native and I was never exposed to 4-H until I moved to Mississippi,” she said. “I like 4-H because it is an organization that treats all children as equals. Each child is part of the team and learns to value other team members.”
Volunteer leadership is open to anyone, and there is no requirement of prior 4-H experienceHH. Some leaders are former 4-H members, but others get involved because they either have children or enjoy working with them. A few come from states that do not promote 4-H, and they have discovered the opportunities in Mississippi's program.
“4-H was begun more than 100 years ago with a focus on plant and animal sciences,” said Susan Holder, Extension state program leader for 4-H youth development. “Today's youth and their volunteer leaders have expanded that initial scope into a broad expanse of projects from computer technology and robotics to rocketry. It is exciting to see our 4-H program continue to meet the interests of and provide opportunities for future generations.”
The Mississippi Volunteer Leaders Association exists to help adult volunteers create a network of contacts across the state. The association holds conferences and forums so leaders can share real-life experiences and connect with Extension staff to represent young people's needs, desires and goals.
“My oldest daughter has a learning disability, and I wanted to find something that would draw her out and allow her to feel good about herself,” said Reginia Foster, a 4-H volunteer leader in Pontotoc County. “We got involved in the 4-H lamb project, and then we moved on to the dairy project. I was not a 4-H member as a child, but I wish now that I had been because I have seen what 4-H can do to help children gain confidence and enjoy life.”
Volunteer leaders seek out training opportunities to discuss new ideas and instruction techniques for reaching out to all youth. Leaders come away from these meeting with the tools needed to connect state 4-H program staff with club members and help more children.
More than 7,400 Mississippians serve as adult volunteer leaders, and their economic impact on 4-H program development is significant.
“This year alone, these volunteers have generated more than $22 million in added value to the state 4-H program,” said interim vice president Melissa Mixon of the MSU Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine.
Financial support is important to maintain a viable 4-H program, but the main priority for many volunteer leaders is to provide a safe, caring environment for learning.
“I am one of the richest people in the world because of the friendships I have made through 4-H,” said Norman Armstrong of West Point, who has been involved with 4-H for more than 65 years as a club member and volunteer leader.
Volunteer leaders, through their commitment of time and talent, provide a setting for young people to gain leadership and life skills that they never outgrow.
“Developing our youth into the outstanding citizens of tomorrow is the greatest strength of the 4-H program, and this strength comes from our volunteer leaders,” Holder said
People interested in becoming a 4-H volunteer leader can contact their local county Extension office or visit the 4-H Volunteers web page.