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4-H something to celebrate

The March 14 ‘status’ on my 20-year-old daughter’s Facebook page said it all:

“Got a shout out from a prof for being a very “clear and confident speaker and presenter.” Second one this year. All those years of hating 4-H speaking competitions are finally paying off!”

Reading that took me back a decade to the time I was confronted with a defiant 10-year-old who saw no value at all in standing up in front of a bunch of people and opening your mouth — hoping words would come out. Public speaking had nothing to do with riding horses, which is why we got involved with 4-H in the first place, or rather, why she got involved in 4-H.

What would she speak about? My suggestions met with disdain. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it. “I am NOT doing a speech!” she said.

“Fine!” I replied, tired of trying to explain why she’d be grateful for the experience one day, tired of reminding her I felt exactly the same way about 4-H speeches when I was her age — and just plain tired. “It’s your choice. But no speech, no 4-H; no 4-H, no horse.”

It was one of those parenting moments when you wish you could take back the words as soon as they left your mouth. They hung there like laundry on a hot, humid day and for a moment, it looked like the feisty little carrot top would call my bluff.

“Fine!” she said. She wrote a speech.

For the life of me, I don’t remember what that first speech was about (another parental lapse). But neither does she. I do remember that after that speech, she wrote another, and another.

At first, it was simply about getting the job done. But then, despite what she said, you could see her putting out more effort — wanting to do it well. Over the next six years, she grew to enjoy the challenge of competition, trying to make it to the next level in speeches and her pursuit of riding. She didn’t have a clue how much she was learning in the process.

Anyone who has experienced 4-H as a member, parent, leader — or, as is often the case, all three — can identify with this story. Each year, the young speakers traipse to the front of the room and work their way through what seems like an excruciatingly long few minutes. Their relieved sighs are audible as they plunk back into the safety of a chair amongst their peers.

Each year around this time, those darned project books have to be completed, which of course meant, the “project” is nearing its completion too. Whether it is beef, sewing, equine, cooking, sheep, photography or any one of the dozens of projects youth pursue under the guidance of leaders from their community, they are oblivious to the life lessons those efforts deliver.

Projects are about setting goals. Deadlines are about the discipline to work towards those goals. Achievement isn’t about perfection. It is about finishing a task on time and to the best of your ability.

Being a senior member in 4-H is about being a mentor to the juniors. It happens quite naturally. The juniors look up to the seniors and the seniors tend to rise to the challenge. The “club” gives youth an alternative social sphere to school; it’s a place where they feel accepted when other places they might not.

Learning to do by doing, invariably results in mistakes. But mistakes are another opportunity to learn. And you are never done with the learning, because the way to keep life interesting is to continue seeking new challenges.

And if you find yourself bucked off, you dust yourself off, climb back on and keep on riding. What better life lesson can there be?

Thousands of young adults have discovered having 4-H on their resumé means something to a prospective employer, not because it is some kind of status symbol like an Ivy-league education. It is because it means they are “doers” who aren’t afraid to tackle something new for fear they might fail. It means they might not like talking in front of the group, but they can get the job done.

It is because they have been exposed to ethics beyond the “I’m only in it for me” psyche through the head-heart-health-hands 4-H pledge.

The fact that these ideals have been part of a youth development program in rural Canada for a century is truly something to celebrate.

But as the 4-H community enjoys these celebrations, it’s also important to look to the future.

The rural population, the core base of membership, continues to decline. Efforts to reach out to urban youth are underway and need to be aggressively pursued. Many youth today risk becoming disengaged from the real world, finding it easier instead to connect through the virtual reality of social media.

The hands-on, face-to-face value 4-H delivers to our youth is more relevant than ever. May it continue to find new ways to be part of their lives.

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