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4-H empowers young people with the skills to lead for a lifetime

Russ White
Julie Chapin, Jeff Dwyer

You've probably seen the four leaf clover with the letter H imprinted on each leaf at some point and had one of two reactions: a warm fuzzy feeling because it reminded you of some of the best times of your youth or a quizzical look followed by, "What is that?" 

Jeff Dwyer:You've probably seen the four leaf clover with the letter H imprinted on each leaf at some point and my guess is you had one of two reactions: a warm fuzzy feeling because it reminded you of some of the best times of your youth or a quizzical look followed by, "What is that?" I'm Jeff Dwyer, Director of Michigan State University Extension and I'm talking about the 4H emblem, and nobody is more familiar with 4H than my guest today on Partnerships and Peninsulas, Julie Chapin. Dr. Chapin is the former Michigan State University Extension State 4H Program Leader and Director of the Children and Youth Institute. She has truly lived the 4H life. Julie, it's good to see you. Thank you for being here today.

Julie Chapin:Thanks Jeff. I'm pleased to be here.

Dwyer:I'd like to start by having you tell us how did you first get involved in 4H?

Chapin:In a very roundabout way actually. I grew up in a military family, so we traveled all the time, and it wasn't until my dad got planning for his retirement and we moved back home and we moved to live with my grandparents. So my first 4H leader was my grandfather, and he got us started in dairy cattle and dairy projects. Then my dad retired and he became my 4H leader. And as I progressed through my high school career and college career, I became a 4H volunteer. I started working as a summer program assistant and just had lots of different opportunities.

But 4H was one of those things that when you moved into a new community - we'd moved every four years for my entire life until fifth grade when we moved back home - it was a way to make friends and meet families and get to know the community and just be part of something that was valued. It was a rural community, but I quickly learned that it wasn't just the rural community within Ottawa County where I grew up that was part of 4H. It was in all parts of the county and we learned about people and about the county because we were part of an organization like that.

Dwyer:That's terrific, and in your case it obviously led to a career choice.

Chapin:Yes, it did. Yes, it did.

Dwyer:That's fantastic. So you referred to it as your own experience. As you know I'm relatively new to getting acquainted with 4H over the last couple of years, but I think a lot of people, including me previously think of 4H as primarily an agricultural-focused youth-oriented program. Do you think that's true today?

Chapin:No, I don't. You know, and I think that's one of the misconceptions. If we think back to when 4H started and my participation as a member, as a volunteer and then as a staff person and an employee of this organization, it's always fascinating to me to understand what came before to understand where we're going. And if we think about where 4H started, 4H started in 1902 nationally and in 1908 here in Michigan. We were then an agrarian society.

The mission of 4H when it started was to teach young people skills they needed to be successful in their future. That is still the mission. As society has changed, as the needs of our communities have changed, the kinds of things we do in 4H have changed. When electricity was going in to rural communities, 4H had electric projects. When computers and microwaves were first introduced into kitchens and for homemakers, Michigan wrote Microwave Connection as a curriculum that became a nationally used curriculum to help people learn how to use microwaves.

When 4H started we were teaching agriculture because we were an agrarian society. We began to teach kids agriculture because parents didn't like new things. The old way was just fine. As their kids began to learn new things, adults began to adapt too. The same with all the new technologies. We now do technology and computer programming, engineering, robotics, coding camps. All those things are skills kids are going to need in their future, so those are the things 4H teaches. Mission hasn't changed. Purpose hasn't change. The content we teach has changed because society has changed.

Dwyer:You're so right, Julie. 4H is such an amazing program and one of the things I've learned as I've gotten to know more about 4H in my role as Director of Extension is the opportunities for civic engagement and the opportunities for leadership development. So every March there's Capitol Experience that brings several dozen youth from around the state to Lansing and they learn a great deal about the political process.

They meet politicians. Just a really fantastic experience. In early April every year I'm usually able to accompany or be a part of three or four youth going to Washington, DC and meeting with Senators and people in Congress and others. So I think that's a big part of 4H that maybe people aren't as aware of is the opportunities to be a part of groups that you referred to earlier, a part of getting these experiences that are about being a part of teams about leadership and other sorts of things. Are there other examples of those sorts of things that you think really shine a light on 4H and how it's helping youth today?

Chapin:As we think about what young people are involved with, in what our communities need and what society needs, very early in my career someone told me 4H really isn't a youth development program as much as it's a community development program that starts working with young people and helps them to get engaged and provides opportunities for them to get engaged and make a difference now, not just in adulthood.

And I think that's very, very critical. If you think about the 4H's of 4H, head, heart, hands and health, head, that's the learning. That's the new knowledge that young people can gain through the projects that they do in 4H. Heart is the service and the interrelationships. The interpersonal relationships, the teamwork, the learning to work with people like themselves who are different from themselves. We don't know what jobs are going to be out there for young people in five years much less 10 years from now, but we do know that they're always going to have to work with other people. And so building those skills, those teamwork skills, those leadership skills, that sense of connection and engagement globally are really important.

So things like Capitol Experience that you just talked about, things like our 4H International programs where we bring young people from around the world here to Michigan for home-stays and we have young people and adults traveling to other countries to learn are really important kinds of opportunities that help kids and their families learn skills they're going to need to be successful. When we think about health and healthy choices, the H of health, and we think about making positive decisions and correct decisions, 4H gives kids an opportunity to take risks, try new things in safe environments with caring adults and others with similar interests to try things on and make mistakes without it being a life-damaging kind of a decision.

And that's really important. And then hands for service. Civic engagement, being part of your community, giving back, those are all pieces and parts. The ways kids do it vary by the communities that they're in, but it's a foundational piece of it and it has always been a foundational piece. I think the nice thing about 4H is that if someone has an interest and they can find someone who's willing to help them learn about it, whether that individual has the knowledge or not, if they're willing to learn along with kids 4H can do those things, and that's pretty powerful.

Dwyer:I agree with you. Just in my own experiences in addition to Capitol Experience I've had the chance to build boats out of tinfoil and be a part of competitions to see whose boat could hold the most paperclips. I had the privilege last summer of buying a pig from one of our 4H youth in Dickinson County at the Upper Peninsula State Fair and just the range of opportunities available.

So 4H is the youth development program of all of Michigan State University Extension. It clearly is a premiere part of what we do and when you were the State 4H Director and the Director of the Child and Youth Institute, as we still do, we had over 100 full-time employees who are part of the program. But this year we also have 219,000 youth in 4H, and so even with the 100 or more employees dedicated to 4H, we can't do it by ourselves.

Chapin:Absolutely not.

Dwyer:And so we rely a tremendous amount on 16,000 adult volunteers. Could you talk a little bit about those adult volunteers, how they fit into the program and what the requirements are if any of our listeners are interested in perhaps joining us?

Chapin:Sure. Volunteers are really the lifeblood of 4H because as you've just said, we cannot do what we do across this state, across this country without engaging volunteers in real and meaningful ways. There are so many opportunities for people to give back that we work really hard to make sure that volunteers in 4H have a positive experience. It's as much a growth experience for them as it is for the young people they work with.

But we take that role of volunteering very seriously. As far back as 1994, Michigan 4H and Michigan State University Extension began a volunteer selection, volunteer screening process that included an application, a background check, reference checks and an interview. We've continued that. We continue to tweak that and expand that. And our goal is to ensure safe environments for young people and for the other volunteers who are in our program to make sure that individuals who engage with our programs, who engage with adults who are part of our program and with the youth who are part of that program are there for appropriate reasons, that we've helped them find the best place to be a volunteer.

Because everything people want to do isn't necessarily a part of our 4H program or appropriate, but we work hard at that. So now our system has expanded to include national background checks. Every three years we redo those to help ensure that we continue to offer safe environments. Our staff goes through significant training on recognizing challenging situations for young people and volunteers and how to respond to those. And we believe that those are really, really important things for us to do.

So if someone's interested in 4H, if someone's interested in volunteering in their community, first thing they need to do is contact their extension office. You can find them in the White Pages of any phone book or online. You know, just type in MSU Extension and you can find the local offices and staff there. As you said, we've got 100 people on staff serving every county of this state. They can help you get started.

Dwyer:Well, thank you very much for all that you've done over the course of your career in supporting 4H, Julie, and we're really grateful for the impact. I think one of the other things that people may not be aware of, and you've helped me to understand over the last couple of years, is that 4H impacts youth in ways that influences other parts of their lives. So we've learned recently about data that suggests that kids who have a 4H experience are more likely to go to college. Of those that go to college, kids with a 4H experience are somewhat more likely to complete college within a four to six year period.

Often that may be because someone raised a dairy cow and they wanted to become a vet or an animal science professor or something like that. But I think many think that it's also because in the process of whatever they did, whether it was in agriculture or robotics or civic engagement, that they learned those leadership skills and they learned how to work with others and they learned and had experiences that they might not have otherwise had that then can impact them later in their life. Is there a youth that you can think of recently that you're just really proud of the experience that they had in 4H and what it looks like, the impact that it's having on their life?

Chapin:Oh my, there are a lot of young people who are now adults who are now out in the world in their careers who came up through 4H. And sometimes in some nontraditional ways. Probably one who comes most immediately to mind because I just happened to be looking at his Facebook page is Dominick Clemons. He was a Genesee County 4H-er, part of our leadership civic engagement programs and part of Capitol Experience, the program you talked about before. He has now gone on to a career in governmental affairs and is engaged in civic activity in very real, meaningful ways, both at the state and the national level.

He’s a young person who discovered he could do those things very early on and then had people in his life who supported him trying on new roles, who helped him to experience success and deal with the frustrations when things didn't work out the way he hoped they would. Those are all really important things. 4H teaches a lot of technical skills, but 4H teaches probably more importantly those life skills of problem solving, responsibility, dealing with success and failure in positive ways. We've talked to the young people in 4H who had a 4H experience and have gone on now to four year and technical schools about things that helped them. They talk about not the content they learned, but, "I learned how to manage my time. I learned how to deal with 'failure' when I wasn't doing well in a class. I learned how to advocate for myself and ask questions and find people to help me."

Those are things that whatever they end up doing in life are going to be so important and I think are really the essence of what 4H is about, why you would want your child in 4H. It doesn't matter whether you have a dog or a cat or a farm animal or you can grow a garden or whatever. If you want your child to learn those kinds of skills, there are activities that 4H can offer whether it's in a yearlong club or it's in a short term SPIN club, special interest program or a summer program. It gives them that connection to others and to community that they might not otherwise have.

Dwyer:Well, I couldn't agree more. This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the Director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Dr. Julie Chapin, recently retired State 4H Leader and Director of the Child and Youth Institute talking about 4H. Thank you very much for your time today.

Chapin:Thanks Jeff. 
MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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