4-H fun: It’s so much more than cows and cooking these days
In case you were wondering, 4-H is more than just cows and cooking these days. That’s the word from Lyndsey Androstic, the Westmoreland County 4-H extension educator.
“I tell people that we are maintaining tradition, but also changing to remain relevant,” she says.
What that means is that young people who join Westmoreland County 4-H clubs certainly can participate in the tried-and-true basics of animal, agriculture and family and consumer science projects. But they also can pursue a wide array of other interests, like arts and crafts, theater, textiles and fashion, small engines, rocketry and robotics.
And that just scratches the surface of what is available.
Scan Penn State Extension’s list of county clubs and you find names like “Biscuit Buddies” (for dog lovers), “Blazing Saddles” (for equestrians) and “Travel All” (for kids with wanderlust).
The reason that 4-H has branched out is partly a matter of survival, says Dustin Heeter, a Penn State Extension livestock educator who works in an advisory and education capacity with county 4-H groups.
“There’s a lot of competition for young people’s time nowadays,” he says. “With sports and scouting, kids can get involved at a younger age, so those groups have an opportunity to influence those kids’ interests at a younger age.”
Membership in 4-H is open to children ages 8 to 18. A pre-4-H program called Cloverbud is now available to children ages 5-7. The younger set can receive participation ribbons for showing projects at county fairs, but they don’t compete like the older kids do.
“Kids often start with the traditional agricultural projects and then branch out,” Androstic says. “When a kid comes to us with a particular interest, we try to match them with a group and a leader who is doing what they want to do.”
Along the way, 4-Hers are learning communication and leadership skills that will benefit them throughout their lives, Teeter says.
4‑H is administered through the Cooperative Extension programs of more than 100 public universities — usually land-grant universities such as Penn State — with groups available in every county and parish across the United States, in cities, suburbs and rural communities. Projects take place via in-school and after-school programs, school and community clubs and camps.
According to the 4-H national website, the idea is for kids to receive guidance from adult mentors as they take on leadership roles through their projects.
Though winning a ribbon at a county fair is one goal of 4-H, the intangibles that kids gain are even more important, Heeter says.
“Whether you’re talking about animal, Lego or computer projects, they’re all a tool used to build character and self-worth,” he says. “We’re giving kids the building blocks of leadership and developing young people into good citizens. Those things aren’t always as strong in some of the competing programs.
“One thing I think you’ll find is that employers will tell you, when they have the opportunity to hire people who have been in 4-H, those people outshine others who don’t have that background in seeing projects through and things like public speaking,” he says.
On the road
One program that Androstic finds particularly valuable in broadening horizons is the Travel All Club.
“For whatever reason, economics or other factors, a lot of people don’t ever leave the area, so this gives kids a chance to see a little bit of the world,” she says.
This summer, the club will do a 10-day exchange program with a club from Pipestone County, Minnesota, a rural area on the South Dakota border. Westmoreland 4-Hers will travel there, while a Pipestone group stays with local 4-H families.
“They’ll experience daily life in Pennsylvania,” she says, along with traveling to Pittsburgh, Fort Ligonier, the Flight 93 National Memorial and Washington, D.C.
In the past, Westmoreland County 4-H has hosted kids from many states, including Oregon, Louisiana and Wisconsin, she says.
Test of time
Even with the growing number of activities available to kids — and other demands on their time — membership in Westmoreland County 4-H has remained pretty constant in recent years, Androstic says. In 2018, there were 583 traditional club members countywide.
4-H certainly has stood the test of time with the Dunmire family of Mamont.
James and Emma Dunmire, both in their mid-80s, started nearly 60 years ago by taking their daughter to a meeting when they lived in Elderton, Armstrong County.
It didn’t take long until they found themselves leading that group, a situation that continued when they moved to their present location and joined the Beaver Run Community 4-H Club, which meets at a church in Apollo.
“We were automatically put in when the other leaders left,” Emma Dunmire says. Through children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren, that’s where they’ve stayed.
“A couple years ago, my husband said, ‘OK, that’s it,’ but then one of the grandkids said, ‘Oh Pop, you can’t quit because I want to join,’” she says. “So I guess we’ll do it for as long as we can. Some of the different activities have changed with time, but it’s still a wonderful program for the kids.”
And the $25 annual membership fee is a bargain, Androstic says.
“I think we’re the best-kept secret around,” she says.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter @shirley_trib.