AMES, Iowa – In less than one month, on March 26, almost 200 participants from half of the counties in Iowa will gather at the state capital for the seventh annual Legislative Day, and while that number seems noteworthy to most, former 4-H’er Lauren Hughes knows five other significant numbers it took to get there.
Three of those numbers are one, 42 and 350. Hughes was one program assistant selected for a national conference, practically lived in room number 42, and when the day finally came, counted 350 participants. These numbers illustrate the story of her passion and excitement for the 4-H organization that led to the first event in 2002.
Her passion ran deep enough to turn a few notes on a napkin into a reality, and her excitement was shared by former Iowa 4-H Foundation Director Florine Swanson. Add to that the support of the Iowa State University Extension staff, and Hughes needed only her 4-H experiences to role up her sleeves and get to work.
But back to the other two numbers, two and nine. While neither of Hughes’ parents were 4-H members, her mom’s best friend lived two miles away, and her daughters were in 4-H. Curious, Hughes joined when she was eligible at age nine and “fell in love with it.”
Fast-forwarding to the summer of 1999, Hughes was one of 10 students chosen to be a program assistant for the Citizenship Washington Focus held at the National 4-H Headquarters. While high schoolers flocked to Chevy Chase, Maryland to attend civic workshops, go on tours and visit legislators, she noticed T-shirts that boasted of individual state’s own legislative days.
“I thought, there’s no reason why Iowa couldn’t offer this as well,” she said.
As Hughes began plotting ideas on her own, Swanson also was thinking about the possibility of this kind of event. Inspired by the Illinois Legislative Day and Janice Seitz, director of the University of Illinois Extension 4-H Youth Development at the time, she was fascinated by the financial support the event generated for the state’s 4-H program in merely five years. Soaking up their ideas and strategies, she brought them back to Iowa, and in fall 2001, Swanson and Hughes began putting together the first Legislative Day.
“The 4-H office was in the basement of Curtiss Hall in room 42, and I was there until nine or 10 on a lot of Friday and Saturday nights. It was definitely not a typical senior year of college for me, but it was well worth it,” said Hughes, an Iowa State University student at the time. Guided by Mitch Hoyer, the 4-H coordinator for Legislative Day in 2002, she organized buses, food, events and speakers and worked with the state capital.
“Lauren did the nuts and bolts of the first legislative day,” said Hoyer. Meanwhile, Swanson succeeded in getting financial support from corporations.
“I worked with senators, representatives and Meredith Corporation because 2002 was the 100th anniversary for them and for 4-H,” Swanson said. “I also asked all ISU Extension staff and volunteers to help out.”
March 26 arrived with 350 4-Her’s eager to experience the first Iowa 4-H Legislative Day. Meredith Corporation gave out free cookbooks, goodies and tours while 4-Her’s set up service project displays in the rotunda for legislators to look through on their breaks. There also was a breakfast at the fairgrounds, tours of the Capitol and sessions for the participants and volunteers. The day was capped by a rally outside of the Capitol, and when the last bus load pulled out of the parking lot, Hughes called it a “big lift” while Swanson declared it a “home run.”
“It was truly a phenomenal experience to see my ideas on the back of an envelope become an event,” Hughes said.
Over the next four years, Legislative Day grew rapidly to almost 600 participants in 2006, which caused problems for downtown Des Moines businesses. That issue resulted in the state being split into two groups with each group attending the event alternating years. It was well received by participants and legislators last year.
The focus of the day also has changed since the beginning. Initially, it concentrated on government and career opportunities with hopes of raising financial support for the Iowa 4-H program. Over time, it has shifted to help youth become civically involved and increasingly aware of emerging issues in their community and state.
“The initial concept was about raising more resources for 4-H, and it was driven by the Iowa 4-H Foundation to make money,” Swanson said.
“Now the focus is on the kids, and it should be. That’s where the impact always was,” added Becky Nibe, program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension 4-H Youth Development. “Kids are becoming legislative pages, coming back and understanding that the legislators in Des Moines are just like their parents going to work everyday. It’s real for them.” Besides becoming pages and informed citizens, Swanson pointed out that youth also are becoming active in politics.
“Look at the number of them who are now thinking about political science as a major or helping run campaigns. 4-Her’s have become very visible in the political process,” she said.
While Hughes hasn’t seen the influence and change of Legislative Day after graduating from ISU in 2002, she hasn’t forgotten the experience and impact of helping organize the first one either.
“The day and project itself capitalize what’s important in 4-H – civic involvement, meeting other students and learning about the opportunities there are out there,” she said. “When I think of what 4-H meant to me and the people I’ve met, it was a no brainer to put the work in. That is one of a small handful of things that still means a lot to me.”
Hughes is currently in her third year of medical school and plans to become a family medicine practitioner.
Carol Ouverson, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-9640, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hannah McCulloh, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-7581, email@example.com