What comes to mind when you hear 4-H? Perhaps you picture a fresh-faced farm boy holding a baby calf in his arms, full of excitement and trepidation at the thought of being responsible for raising such a helpless creature. Or you might imagine a proud young girl holding a huge pumpkin that she grew and entered into competition at the local county fair. When the organization began in the early 20th century, 4-H focused primarily on agricultural opportunities that encouraged rural youth to grow and learn and develop leadership skills.
Fast forward to 2022, and times have changed. Today 4‑H has spread its wings, serving six million youth in rural, urban, and suburban communities across the nation. 4‑H’ers are working in their towns and cities to find solutions to today’s social problems. Together with their mentors, they are completing hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture, and civic engagement.
What hasn’t changed is the organization’s commitment to empowering youth and believing in the potential of the next generation to improve the world around us. The Hs in 4-H represent Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. Together these components symbolize the hands-on, learn-by-doing, opportunities in 4-H, available for everyone.
Locally there are many ways to get involved with 4-H in the Tidewater area—from Surry County to Hampton, Virginia Beach, and surrounding cities. Let’s meet a few members of our community who are excited about the ways 4-H is helping our youth build life-long skills that will serve them as well as their communities in today’s changing world.
Karen Baker: Hampton Extension Agent
Promotes Team Building and Leadership Opportunities
Karen Baker works with youth in Hampton as Unit Coordinator and 4-H Youth Development Extension Agent. Since 2001, she has helped spread the benefits of 4-H involvement to area youth. Unlike agents who work in rural areas, Karen knew that programs involving cows, pigs, and other livestock wouldn’t be as effective for the youth in Hampton. “I had to figure out what the community wanted, what the schools wanted, and how I could keep the children engaged,” she said.
One of the challenges Karen faced, and still does, is the prevalence of other programs for youth. She carved a niche in the community by presenting the 4-H program as a supplement, an add-on to other youth-serving events and activities. Support from the City of Hampton and the surrounding community has helped her succeed in her goals.
Many 4-H programs are offered within the school system, such as 4-H Health Rocks!—a curriculum designed to teach youth about drugs and alcohol prevention. Your Thoughts Matter, a mental health awareness program, is also offered through the school system.
Students can also participate in after-school and special interest programs, including community clubs and military clubs. For example, the Hampton 4-H Teen Club meets regularly to plan community projects and conduct team-building exercises. The club fosters leadership, healthy living, and civic engagement, and many members continue on as camp teen counselors and as 4-H Cabinet State Ambassadors.
Karen wants families who are considering 4-H to know that there are many opportunities and possibilities, that 4-H can essentially be what you want it to be. “Our programs foster positive youth development through civic engagement, STEM activities, leadership opportunities, and communication skills,” she said, adding that 4-H is open to ages 5-19 at no cost other than the investment of time.
Joshua Cunnison: 4-H Ambassador
4-H Camp ia a "Good Experience"
Joshua Cunnison, a 15-year-old student at Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, has been involved with Hampton 4-H since he was nine. He began by attending Hampton’s 4-H Junior Camp at Jamestown 4-H Educational Center. “I am a social butterfly, and 4-H sounded like a good experience,” Josh said. “I enjoyed connecting and talking and being away from my everyday routine.”
Jennifer Cunnison, Josh’s mom, admitted that she was a little nervous when her son first went to camp. “He was only nine going away overnight,” she said. “But at the end of the day, this experience introduced them to kids from other cities and counties, and they had the opportunity to learn together and become friends.”
Camp has been an annual experience for Josh, but in 2018, Jennifer thought he might not be able to go because she had been laid off from her job. Jennifer and Josh soon found that the 4-H community was even more supportive than she had imagined. “Mrs. Baker told us that they would make a way for Josh to attend camp,” Jennifer said. “I knew then that they were vested in the kids and weren’t simply interested in who could pay to attend.”
Josh faced another potential roadblock last year when he developed stress injuries in both legs and had to wear a boot and use crutches just days before he was set to go to camp. “I went anyway,” Josh said. “I had to go. I couldn’t leave that community behind.” It was his first year as a Hampton 4-H teen counselor.
This year Josh was elected to 4-H State Cabinet as one of the ambassadors for the southeast district, and he is looking forward to the upcoming 4-H Pillars Day, when he will have the opportunity to share what 4-H is all about with interested youth. Josh is hoping for more in-person events this spring and summer.
While 4-H is well known for promoting development among our youth, Josh says that there is much more that families should consider when thinking about participating. “You might start by attending a summer camp and end up with a hobby you want to do forever,” he said. “There are opportunities for visual art, guitar, culinary arts, fishing, and much more.”
And for parents who might be on the fence about sending their children to camp, Jennifer said, “Give it a try. I have seen the growth kids experience in just one week from when they leave for camp to when they return. Plus, 4-H gives kids somebody in their corner other than their parents, and they need that.”
Billie Jean Elmer: Retired 4-H Leader
4-H Teaches Life Skills & Self-Confidence
Now retired, Billie Jean Elmer served as an agent for 4-H youth development in Surry County for 17 years. As a graduate of Virginia Tech and member of Future Farmers of America, her interests coincided nicely with the youth in this rural county. Billie Jean knew the area and understood the families. “It was easy to go into the schools and plan programs, and it was easy to take them to dairy farms so they could learn more about livestock,” she said.
One of the programs Billie Jean developed was a seminar for high school freshmen. She and several local professionals met with ninth graders in the school cafeteria and taught them about place settings and how to eat in a fine dining restaurant. “We encouraged students to introduce themselves and shake hands with adults and engage in conversation,” Billie Jean said. Not too long after this mock dinner, students dressed up and attended a luncheon at Airfield Conference Center in Wakefield where they ate a meal and practiced their interview skills.
For many years, 4-H was Billie Jean’s work life and her home life. Both of her daughters, Mary and Kate, attended camp annually and learned life skills like public speaking and sewing. They were both pages in the General Assembly, and Mary traveled to Japan as a teen and served in the Peace Corps in Panama.
Perhaps the longest lasting benefit of 4-H is the development of self-confidence. “Both of my girls learned that their personalities, though very different, were okay and that they had a purpose on their team,” Billie Jean said.
Even in retirement, Billie Jean is often reminded of the impact she made on the youth of Surry. College-aged students have reached out to thank her, and occasionally she bumps into former 4-H youth. “They don’t always remember my name,” Billie Jean said. “But they know I was the 4-H lady, and they know I loved my community.”
4-H offers opportunities for all youth in the community, as well as volunteer positions for adults. To learn more about 4-H in your city or county, visit ext.vt.edu/4h-youth.html.
To download free at-home 4-H STEM activities, visit www.4-h.org/about/4-h-at-home.