AMES. Iowa -- 4-H can play a role in meeting the needs of low-income urban youth, if you have the guts to change your thinking and bring the genius of 4-H to meet the needs of other young people.
Those are words C. J. Gauger heard and took to heart when he attended a national conference during his tenure as program director of Iowa State University Extension 4-H Youth Development from 1959 to 1979.
Iowa’s 4-H program has much to offer urban youth, Gauger believes. In fact, that will be the next great push for the 4-H Youth Development program, if it stays on the course he charted.
Gauger recently reminisced about several changes he saw during his 20-year leadership. One of those changes was the move to include town and city kids in previously all rural clubs.
Within his first half day on the job, Gauger recalls hearing from disgruntled 4-H leaders asking, “Why is it that we have to give up 4-H to the town kids?” Later those same leaders admitted being wrong and recognized that 4-H was successfully “bringing the rural and town kids together in a way that we could not have done otherwise.”
4-H belonged in rural communities when it began in the early 1900s, Gauger said, but limiting 4-H to farm youth in the 1960s would have been a mistake. The early program helped alleviate rural poverty by introducing better crop production and home economics methods to farm families. It not only educated the children, but also educated the parents, bringing a better life to the whole family.
The challenge now is to bring the 4-H “can do” spirit and a sense of self worth to urban youngsters in a way that meets their needs.
Gauger was at the 4-H helm when EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program) began in 1969. He helped bring about EFNEP-4-H, which offers fun and knowledge about healthy foods to low resource youngsters, and, consequently, to their parents. Youth also learn cooking, sewing, woodworking, gardening and recreation skills through hands-on activities. EFNEP served 10 urban counties and reached nearly 17,000 youth in 2006.
Perhaps the biggest change Gauger oversaw came in placing emphasis on the life skills of leadership, citizenship and communication. Gauger sees these skills as the “biggest benefit to a 4-H’er” and ones that will benefit any child, rural or urban.
“4-H’ers do learn these skills in combination with other projects,” be it aerospace, photography or vegetable crops, Gauger states. “But melding the two, (life skills and project knowledge), was a big movement that saw Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania take the lead with National 4-H to bring about the change. “
Gauger also sees the Iowa 4-H Center, a 1,100-acre camp, as one of the best ways to bring 4-H to all youth. “Kids have time to take themselves apart, away from their home and close to nature, and put themselves back together” with a new understanding of their relation to the land, wildlife and people.
Gauger, who credits his 4-H experience for his career, also knows what it’s like to be a town kid and an outsider. Back in 1931 his dad was a minister serving a rural congregation, and Gauger wanted to join a local club. They let him join because an uncle farmed nearby where he could keep a dairy heifer.
“I wasn’t much of a student,” Gauger related, “but I came to Iowa State for the herdsman course. Once I discovered the joy of learning, I knew I had to have more of it.”
4-H always has brought young people to Iowa State, Gauger observed. “It opened the door for me and changed my life as it has changed many others.” He related the story of Ray Mitchell, a 4-H leader who did not consider himself to be leader material.
“Ray said he would serve until the right person came along,” according to Gauger. “He went on to become president of the fair board, president of the Farm Bureau and a leader in the Community Chest. He grew as a leader just as the kids grew as 4-H’ers.” Mitchell was inducted posthumously in 2006 into the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame.
4-H reaches youth through clubs, after school groups, special interest groups such as shooting sports and aerospace, and school enrichment such as science and technology. It is always about hands-on activities that open up the joy of learning for many young people.