News

4-H turns 100

By RICK LEVIN

Staff reporter

There’s more to 4-H than horses and cows.

As director of Island County’s 4-H program, Jennifer Biddle wants to dismantle the stereotype of 4-H as a proud backwater program exclusively for farm kids who tend Blue-Ribbon livestock and once a year shovel hay at the Island County Fair.

Biddle, a life-long 4-Her who became a regional leader just last year, is quick to point out that among the many 4-H projects offered to members are courses on aerodynamics, entomology, conflict resolution, advanced leathercraft and even clowning.

Yet, while trying to expand awareness of the diverse opportunities available to 4-Hers, Biddle also wants to retain what she calls the program’s “small town feeling.” This feeling she describes as trust, neighborliness and a strong sense of community.

“That’s part of it, is giving back to the community and seeing the effect that can have,” Biddle said of the work done by 4-Hers. “They really learn to take pride in what they do, and how to take responsibilities for their actions.”

This year marks the official 100th anniversary of 4-H, though the program actually traces its inception way back to 1898, when a student at Cornell University started distributing “Junior Naturalist” leaflets to kids in rural public schools. Since that long-ago moment, 4-H has grown to become the largest youth organization in the nation, with a membership well over 5.5 million.

About 400 of those 4-Hers live in Island County.

Oak Harbor High School student Tory Gannon, 15, has been a 4-H member for the past four years. Currently, Gannon is serving her fourth and final year as president of a common-interest club of about 25 young adults focusing on heritage breeds.

“Our club is unique from other clubs because we raise a variety of things,” Gannon said, explaining that what they raise are breeds that exemplify a part of American heritage. “We like to learn about our country’s heritage and present that to the public,” she added.

Gannon can attest to the diversity of opportunities available to 4-Hers. During the time she’s been in the program, Gannon has studied photography, learned to cook, given public presentations and even practiced something called self-determined arts, which she describes as making “something pretty and entering it in the fair.”

“You’re allowed to do anything that interests you,” Gannon said. “I think it’s awesome. It’s a good way to be good at anything, because there are so many options open to you.”

To prove this point, Gannon explained that a girl in her club is currently giving presentations on the letter “A.”

Gannon said the main emphasis in 4-H is on leadership. “You’re really encouraged to pull your weight, and just feel good about yourself,” she said.

Beyond this, Gannon feels 4-H encourages good citizenship and strong ethics in its members. She said one of the club’s main tenets is “be responsible for yourself, and help others whenever you can, and just be there for others.”

Right now, Gannon said her “main focus” is on raising rabbits for competition. Depending on how well she does at the county-level competition, she hopes to enter her French Angoras and English Silvers in state competition at the Puyallup Fair in September.

However, Gannon echoes Biddle’s comments about breaking the stereotype of the century-old 4-H program when she says that “a lot of it is raising animals, but there’s so much of it that’s not.”

Agriculture-based economy is mostly gone with the wind, and these days, you’ve got to move faster and faster just to keep up.

Biddle understands that in a world which has progressed in such relatively short time from horsepowered buggies to SSTs and electric cars, 4-H must evolve to remain a viable activity for ambitious kids. This, she said, without losing sight of its strong roots in the tradition of “head, heart, hands, health.”

“We try to keep it fun so the kids don’t get burned out,” Biddle said.

Along with regional and state project competitions, there is a long list of activities including international exchange programs, workshops, classes, a “Know Your Government” conference among many others, community service groups, as well as rallies and award nights. To celebrate the centennial of 4-H, members from around the country recently attended the National Conversation on Youth Development in Washington, D.C. Also in honor of the anniversary, Washington State 4-H donated one million hours of community service to Gov. Gary Locke.

Closer to home is the upcoming Spring Show taking place at the Island County Fairgrounds on May 18, which includes a silent auction that Biddle describes as one of 4-H’s biggest fundraisers.

4-H, by the way, charges no duties or fees. It’s free to anyone who wants to join including, Biddle added, adult volunteers who simply want to lend a hand.

With enrollment declining in recent years, Biddle is intent on pushing the character-building value of 4-H as a way for kids to cope with the increasing complexity and difficulties of today’s world. It’s fun, yes, but Biddle doesn’t flinch when pointing out that 4-H requires self-motivation and hard work.

“It’s an all-year responsibility,” Biddle said. “It is a commitment, but it’s a commitment that’s worthwhile. It teaches so many skills that kids can use.”

In fact, it may be 4-H’s quality of engendering “wonderful social skills” that best helps the program survive this brave new millennium of digital reality, reality TV and metal detectors in public schools. What parent wouldn’t want their kid to learn the values of self-determination and social responsibility?

“They really learn to take pride in what they do,” Biddle said of the kids she’s seen in the program. “You learn to come out of your shell and have an opinion. You learn to stand up for what you believe in.”

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