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How does a beloved youth development organization engage its future without losing its heritage?

Note: A version of this story appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The Journal.

As a farm kid in Montgomery County, Kansas, Nicole Small was more than involved in 4-H. She was immersed.

Small raised beef cattle, hogs and sheep. She studied bugs and veterinary science. She cooked; she sewed. She learned photography. “My favorite thing to do in 4-H was to give talks,” Small says. “Crazy, I know. Most kids hate to get up and speak.”

And she was an expert on beef cattle. She raised and showed animals at the county, state and national level. She was in the beef quiz bowl and beef ambassador competition. Everything she did required a lot of record keeping, organization and just plain hard work. Small has carried that work ethic into adulthood as a farmer and rancher near Neodesha, where she and her husband run a cattle operation and also grow corn, wheat, soybeans and milo.

“My brother and I both feel we wouldn’t be where we are today without 4-H. We learned to set deadlines and meet goals – to finish what we started,” Small says.

The Smalls’ sons are carrying on the tradition. This year, Dexter, 11, and Maddix, 8, each raised his own small plot of crops. Dexter’s took second place at the state level. They’ve raised bucket calves, polished rocks and baked award-winning cinnamon rolls. The Smalls attend their 4-H community club’s meetings as a family every month, where students work on yearlong projects in subjects that range from livestock to rocketry to crafts and submit them for judging at the county fair – the highlight of the 4-H year. Nicole leads the club, one of several in Wildcat Extension District 4-H, serving Montgomery, Labette and Crawford counties.

But what if the Small boys didn’t attend 4-H year-round? What if their club weren’t led by a parent? Or if they didn’t enter a project in the county fair?

What if they were like the Lavigne family in Ulysses?

Twins Jace and Kyle Lavigne joined Grant County 4-H in 2013, when it began offering a series of short-format, after-school special interest clubs. The clubs met once a week in nine-week segments, each with a different focus: ceramics, robotics, gardening, and foods and nutrition. The club is led by a volunteer, and the boys’ mother picks them up when she gets off work.

Is that kind of experience still 4-H?

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WHAT IS 4-H ENOUGH?

A growing number of Kansas 4-H agents, staff members, volunteers and members are answering “yes.” They’re working to expand the definition of the 4-H experience in hopes of extending the program to new populations, especially as they have watched enrollment dwindle across the state. Kansas’ changing demographics are partly responsible as the population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas, and the state’s Hispanic population grows every year.

But sometimes when 4-H officials do try new things, they’re rejected for not being 4-H enough.

“Our model has always been that the long term-experience in 4-H is one of best things you can get for kids. But it’s not necessarily the only way,” says Barbara Stone, the head of Kansas 4-H Youth Development and assistant director of K-State Research and Extension, where the program is housed.

What 4-H veterans believe, and research has shown, is that mentorship from engaged adults is the single most important factor in youth development. “The magic sauce is a positive relationship, in a positive environment, with positive experiences. That’s over the long term. Who says we can’t condense that?” Stone says.

But there’s an underlying challenge in making that shift. For many families and volunteers, 4-H is more than a club. It’s an identity. And expanding that identity to include different types and intensities of experiences can be a big change for some whose roots in 4-H run deep.

“We all think of 4-H as our own experience, and we want it to be exactly that way for others. It’s hard to give that up,” says Rhonda Atkinson, associate director of public relations and publications for the Kansas 4-H Foundation.

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A TROUBLING TREND

In Kansas, 4-H programs exist in 60 counties and 16 multicounty districts. Extension staff members operate the programs at the county level, but 4-H relies heavily on volunteers to lead individual clubs. Those may take the form of a community club – the most well-known model, with members meeting monthly and working throughout the year on long-term projects. But 4-H also offers in-school clubs, after-school clubs, military clubs, special interest or short-term programs, overnight camps, day camps, school enrichment, individual study and mentoring, school-aged care programs, and instructional TV or video programs.

As the 21st century dawned, state 4-H and foundation leaders watched as youth participation began a marked decline. “We were being challenged with changing norms, changing family structures and changing demographics,” says Gordon Hibbard, who recently retired as president of the Kansas 4-H Foundation, a not-for-profit organization independent of K-State Research and Extension that helps assist and maintain Kansas 4-H through private fundraising. “There is this out-migration in a large number of rural counties that are losing population.”

Participation hit peak levels of 150,000-plus youths in the early 2000s, according to Kansas 4-H figures. Since 2004, an average of 76,000 children have participated in Kansas 4-H each year. In 2013, the figure was 65,206. School enrichment programs, which occur during school hours and support school curriculum, usually account for a little more than half of the participants.

Enrollment in organized clubs, which are led by adults with a yearlong planned program, averaged between 22,000 and 28,000 members through the 1980s and ’90s. Since 2004, that number has hovered near 23,000 after peaking at 42,000 in 2002. In 2013, there were 20,420 youths in organized clubs. Aside from population changes and an ever-growing menu of youth programs to choose from, there’s no definitive reason behind the decline.

As the traditional 4-H population was shrinking, organizers began thinking that they needed to bring 4-H to new audiences. That’s the objective of the Growing Kansas Leaders expansion grant pilot program, made possible by a donation from the Kansas 4-H Foundation.

The foundation’s strategic planning committee led a capital campaign in the late 2000s, through which fundraisers identified a donor who wanted to contribute significantly to 4-H programming. Atkinson, meanwhile, had joined the first leadership class at the Kansas Leadership Center in 2008 to work not only on declining 4-H enrollment but also a decline in volunteerism. Atkinson thought that if volunteers didn’t feel obligated to stay with 4-H for life, they would be more likely to sign on for short-term involvement.

“An adult working with a young person on a meaningful project is how we do business,” Atkinson says. “If you have more volunteers, you can reach more kids, and the dominoes just start to fall, in theory.”

Soon, KLC faculty, state 4-H and extension officials, and 4-H Foundation staff members joined forces to guide county 4-H agents in developing plans for growth. Three cohort groups of five 4-H agents each were chosen to participate, with the first group beginning work in 2012.

Each county received $5,000 and guidance to diagnose the situation they faced. Then each agent drafted a three-year business plan that included programming ideas and goals for increasing membership and volunteers.

“You’re not going to get a very strong program if you don’t get volunteers involved. That’s been a hallmark of 4-H for years and years,” Hibbard says. “With the changing dynamics of today’s family and economy, the model we had when I was in 4-H in the ’60s isn’t the same one that’s always going to work today.”

The agents organized town-hall meetings with their most active families, local residents, current volunteers and board members to talk about where 4-H appeared to be headed in their communities and how it might need to change. Eventually a leadership team was formed in each county to help carry out the plan objectives.

The goals for each of the 15 participating counties or districts are:

  • Increase volunteer participation by 20 percent.
  • Increase 4-H community club membership by 15 percent.
  • Increase the number of 4-H youth by 25 percent.
  • Increase retention of 4-H families by 10 percent.
  • Recruit a volunteer to be a new families coordinator for each county.
  • Reach out to underserved populations, such as low-income or minority families.

Hibbard says the involvement of Ron Alexander, an Overland Park-based member of the KLC faculty, has been key to the program’s success. Because of Alexander’s long history of working with 4-H and extension, he’s been able to shepherd participants through some tense conversations. The great fear was that 4-H would change to the point of losing its core values.

“Ron has a level of empathy that very few people would be able to provide,” Hibbard says. “Anytime you have a change, there is a sense of loss.”

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‘IT’S AN ADDITION, NOT A SUBTRACTION’

Officials and agents hope this 4-H pilot program will inspire innovation statewide. Their big experiment is the special interest or SPIN clubs. These short-form programs distill the 4-H experience by focusing on a single topic over a short time frame. They’re designed to:

  • Encourage young people to investigate topics that may or may not be typical 4-H projects.
  • Encourage new and underserved youth and families to get involved.
  • Provide an easier way for members and volunteers to try out 4-H.
  • Recruit subject-matter experts as volunteers.

In western Kansas, Grant County 4-H agent Mary Sullivan almost didn’t apply for a grant. Her program was growing and had started to reach out to the region’s growing Hispanic population. A visit with Stone at the Kansas State Fair changed Sullivan’s mind. “(Stone) said, ‘You’ve got some things there that we need to explore.’”

So Sullivan applied and was accepted into the first cohort. The group took its growth proposal to a community meeting with Alexander and representatives from the 4-H Foundation and state offices. Sullivan says the SPIN Club idea got a good response – at first. But then people had questions: Would this siphon kids away from the community clubs? How would kids learn citizenship and leadership and public speaking on a short-term basis? Could a SPIN Club possibly offer the same results as projects that take a year to complete? What if parents just dropped their children off and never got involved?

“All of a sudden the whole room came to this realization that 4-H was never going to be the same,” she says. “They felt a horrible loss. Ron said, ‘I can see it on your faces that we’ve hit a roadblock here.’ ”

The same scene unfolded in Reno County, says 4-H agent Joan Krumme. In 2013, Reno County started an after-school SPIN Club for photography and video production, open to fourth- through sixth-graders. Interest was high, but there was only enough equipment for 12 youths to join. Months after the club formed, Krumme says, she still heard people say it didn’t count as “real 4-H.” Although she didn’t agree, she understood.

“I think they felt threatened that we might want to change their club, and 4-H is a very traditional thing,” Krumme says. “It’s part of who you are. It’s woven into your life. It’s like trying to change the traditions of a family, because 4-H is just that – a family.”

Sullivan says she tried to emphasize that “this is an addition, not a subtraction. The thing we kept coming back to was, ‘Do you believe every youth in our county deserves a taste of 4-H?’ And they would always say ‘yes.’ So the question is, ‘How are we going to do that?’ ”

In 2013, Grant County started its first four SPIN clubs. The Lavigne twins were among the first members. In 2014, there were 56 participants. The county’s 4-H membership grew by 32, well above the goal of 20, and the program also added nine volunteers, when the goal had been three. Community clubs grew from two to three. Since the county got its grant in 2012, membership has increased 50 percent. In 2014, 88 percent of families returned from the previous year.

SPIN Club participants are full-fledged 4-H members, and they’re encouraged – but not required – to take part in other 4-H activities. SPIN Club meetings follow many traditional practices, such as saying the 4-H pledge at meetings, displaying the 4-H clover, providing a showcase for what members learn and using their skills for community service.

For most of the SPIN Club members, though, 4-H isn’t the family tradition that it is among many community club members. Melissa Lavigne, whose sons joined the Grant County SPIN clubs, was never a 4-H member. “When I was a kid, I thought it was more of a farmer’s thing,” Lavigne says.

The boys are in their second year of SPIN Club membership, and Lavigne says they’ve enjoyed finding a creative activity to go along with everything else they do. That’s a long list, and it includes soccer, baseball, tae kwon do, Odyssey of the Mind at school, Awana youth group at church and the Boy Scouts.

“They’re interested in so much,” Lavigne says. “I think 4-H gives them a little more range of different ideas to think about.”

While longtime 4-H’ers begin to accept SPIN clubs as legitimate 4-H, some of the original community clubs are changing, too. “It’s not just cows and cookies anymore,” Sullivan says. Only four out of 45 members who are doing traditional projects in Grant County are raising livestock, she says.

Small, the Montgomery County farmer, says modern 4-H is definitely not just for farm kids. “I think the kids who don’t live on farms get more out of it than kids who do,” Small says. “It takes them out of their comfort zone. I think it’s great to get that interaction between rural and city kids.”

Dozens of SPIN clubs are springing up statewide, and science and technology are hot topics. In Seward County, an agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation led a crime-scene investigation (CSI) club. Reno County just launched a zoology club in partnership with the Hutchinson Zoo, that Krumme says is formatted like an internship for teens. Several counties have partnered with their local libraries to do reading clubs.

Kathy Bloom, 4-H agent for Seward County, says: “I feel like our people have been a little unsure about how this was going to affect the community club. But actually we’ve had a lot of community club members join in the SPIN clubs.” A few SPIN members have crossed over to the community club. That’s not a stated goal of the grant, but it may reassure some stakeholders that SPIN clubs can be an entry point to a deeper 4-H commitment.

And in Reno County, members of the photo and video club found so much enjoyment that they chose to convert from a SPIN Club to a traditional community club. They’ve done projects in arts and crafts, foods and, of course, photography – all 4-H mainstays.

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VOLUNTEERS STILL HARD TO FIND

With the decline in 4-H enrollment came a decline in the volunteer base. Traditionally, the majority of club leaders have been parents or grandparents of 4-H kids. The SPIN Club model encourages more leadership from other areas of the community, and Krumme says it can be easier to find volunteers for short-term programs.

“When we ask them to volunteer for 4-H, they automatically think it’s a life sentence,” Krumme says. “So it’s really nice to be able to say, ‘You’re only committing for a six-week period.’ If they want to continue after that, it’s fine.”

In Seward County, Bloom says, the CSI SPIN Club was already in development when she joined the Growing Kansas Leaders program. Now she’s pursuing volunteers for unusual topics like glassblowing and a photography club that would focus on historic or tourist sites around Liberal.

Being part of the pilot program “has opened up some creativity. It’s nice to get out of that traditional box and think of some new things,” Bloom says.

But other agents are still waiting to see a payoff.

In October, agents participating in the grants submitted their year-end reports to the 4-H Foundation. Some were clearly discouraged that their efforts had fallen short.

Edwards County staffers Marty Gleason and Amy Sollock noted: “It has not been easy!” They had tried to create SPIN clubs around topics like aviation and genealogy but couldn’t find volunteers to lead them. “I’m not sure why we are struggling in this aspect,” Gleason wrote in his report, “but Edwards County has not embraced the SPIN Club model.”

It doesn’t help when area families give conflicting reasons about why they don’t participate. The community club can seem like too much of a commitment, but then some reject the short-term SPIN clubs because it isn’t the familiar model.

Barbara Stone, the Kansas 4-H head, says volunteers often have specific ideas about how they want to run an activity. “Most nonprofits are trying to figure out how to attract and keep them. We’re in that same place,” Stone says.

Krumme says building community partnerships has helped 4-H in Reno County offer more robust programming. The video club got hands-on experience in the production studio at Hutchinson Community College, and Krumme is also pursuing a partnership with local radio stations to start a broadcasting club.

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COMING FULL CIRCLE

Hibbard retired as head of the Kansas 4-H Foundation this winter after 10 years as president. One of his proudest accomplishments was helping to introduce 4-H to the growing Hispanic population in southwestern Kansas.

Two foundation board trustees made personal donations to fund outreach in that area, Hibbard says. The money helped hire bilingual staff members and develop marketing campaigns in Spanish. Local extension and 4-H agents also had to learn about Hispanic family culture, Sullivan says, to form those relationships.

In many counties, agents went to meatpackers and agricultural employers to encourage their employees to try 4-H. Extension agents who were already working with immigrants in their family and nutrition programs began to pitch 4-H as an activity they could do alongside their children. The agents developed a marketing campaign called “Una vida mejor con 4-H.”A better life with 4-H.”

The outreach is working, as Hispanic participation blossoms. “It’s almost like 4-H looked 100 years ago. The whole family comes,” says Stone. “It’s so gratifying. You hear people say 4-H is dying, and then you look at this audience that’s just hungry for it because they see 4-H as something for the family.”

Krumme says she understands why it’s hard for some to accept innovations like the SPIN clubs, even when they succeed. “There are certain things about 4-H that lifer 4-H’ers believe only 4-H offers,” she says.

But the 21st century may be seeing the creation of a new status quo. The challenge for those in the Growing Kansas Leaders program is to plant the seeds of positive youth development in a new way and perhaps come up with a hybrid that meets more needs than ever. If everyone can agree that results are what’s important, it may matter less and less which road they take to get there.

The more traditional involvement of families such as the Smalls in activities such as their community club still represents a core part of what 4-H is and does, but there are other paths to become part of 4-H. While Jace and Kyle Lavigne may never join the 4-H community club in Grant County, their mother can already see the influence of the organization’s values showing up in the lives of her fifth-graders. At school, the boys had a choice to take a test on plant cell structure or do a project to demonstrate their knowledge. Jace picked the project and built a cell out of Jell-O.

Who’s to say where that influence might end? Today’s 4-H members will likely be tomorrow’s 4-H leaders and volunteers, carrying on a tradition of lifelong involvement in their own ways. As Krumme says, “Kids who grow up in 4-H never really leave it.”

In the end, 4-H officials say the thing to remember is that what matters most isn’t so much how children and families choose to engage with 4-H; it’s that they do and that their lives – and the lives of others – are positively affected because of the experience.

“The principles of 4-H are key,” Atkinson says. “How we apply them in today’s world is different, but the results should be the same: Are we helping to produce citizens you would want to live with and to work with and call your friends?”

LEARN MORE

Find out more about 4-H Youth Development in Kansas, including the location of your local K-State Research and Extension office by visiting www.kansas4-h.org.