With the start of school right around the corner, its almost time for clubs to become active again, and with church and sports gearing up too, there will be plenty of groups vying for what seems to be an ever shrinking slice of free time for families. Still, the benefits of young people getting involved with community clubs are far reaching. Friends are made, and projects and field trips provide fun learning experiences, and long-time involvement can even lead to better performance in school and the possibility of college scholarships too. For those itching to get involved in 4-H, new innovations may pave the way for a fresh and exciting way to ease into the program.
In February, the Barton County Extension Agents Berny Unruy, Alicia Boor and Donna Krug assembled a local leadership team to create and develop a plan of action to expand and grow the local 4-H youth development program. The agency is one of six across the state that received a “Grow Kansas 4-H: Program Expansion” grant, and will pilot the program over the next three years.
For many years in Barton County, families have been migrating away from the farm and into the city. This is not just a local problem, though. It’s happening all over the country. Now, the National 4-H Council is seeking ways to innovate while it continues to honor its mission of helping youth learn skills for living.
Because of its origins in corn and canning clubs in the first part of the 20th century, 4-H has been perceived for many years as a club for farm kids, but in reality, there are far more members without a farm background than with, Unruh said. Perhaps surprisingly the most popular project in 4-H locally is photography.
The local leadership group met with a representative from the Kansas Leadership Institute, Ron Alexander, who led the group through a brainstorming session in which members identified a host of issues that keep families from joining and participating in 4-H at the same levels as in the past. Topping the list were too much competition for free time, too many outside commitments, and a perception that 4-H is all about farming and livestock.
A new SPIN
Unruh introduced the idea of an innovative club model, the SPIN club. The group responded positively. SPIN stands for special interest, and the clubs operate only for a pre-determined number of weeks. Essentially, they form around a common interest five or more young people want to learn more about. Adult volunteers may propose a SPIN club based on their ability, or the club members could ask Extension agents for assistance in finding a community volunteer willing to lead the club for six or more sessions. Sessions would last for an hour or longer if needed, once a week, at a location selected for the type of activity and number of participants.
Special interests aren’t new to the Barton County Extension, but they’ve been project-based rather than club-based. Shooting Sports, for instance, is a project members of several clubs take part. Adult volunteers provide instruction, meeting with members on a regular basis at the old 4-H fairgrounds buildings to practice archery, air rifle and smallbore riflery. This team of 4-Hers also compete at events around the region and beyond if they qualify. And while they are members of other Barton County clubs, many identify shooting sports as their “club.”
It is hoped that SPIN clubs may be a way to encourage families who have never been part of 4-H to sample it with the hope that the experience will be one they want to repeat, either with another SPIN club or a traditional club.
Sharing a passion
It’s also a way for adults with a passion to “be the spark that inspires the next generation,” Unruh said. It solves a problem that plagues many community organizations. Instead of having to make a commitment that could end up feeling like an inescapable burden, volunteers know going in how long they will be needed and when they’ll be done. Many in the focus group felt this would fit better with the way adults find themselves scheduled, both with work and family and community commitments. Some in the group admitted they themselves would be more willing to help if they didn’t have to commit during their children’s sport seasons, or during typical crunch times at work.
Club families and the leadership team have already suggested ideas for possible SPIN clubs included sewing and quilting, investing. fishing, hiking and biking, even a Lego club. All that needs to happen now is development.
The grant will last three years, providing funds for Barton County Extension to develop a plan and gauge its effectiveness in carrying out the mission and vision of 4-H. The money will be used for volunteer background checks, face-to-face and online training to help volunteers prepare, assistance in providing materials, supplies or equipment needed and for insurance to cover liability and accidents.
(Editors note: Veronica Coons is participating on the Grow Barton County 4-H: Program Expansion leadership team.)