AMES, Iowa – Altering tradition, a bucket-bottle calf was included in the champion beef sale last year at the Mississippi Valley Fair. His name was Junior, and he had been donated by a local farmer for special-needs 4-H’ers from the Hearts and Hands club to use for a project.
As the auction bid started, the club leaders, Carol Freund and Karen Bernick, watched in amazement. They were aware that a lot of individuals, and even other 4-H clubs, had pooled together money for the calf, but higher and higher the bid rose, far beyond their expectations, before finally stopping at $4,200.
“Everything got really quiet, and the tears started to roll,” Bernick said. “They were saying ‘we want these kids to be able to do this again. Maybe more can participate.’ Beyond the money, though, it was just a wonderful public statement that our club is important to Scott County 4-H. Carol, the other parents and I were overwhelmed.”
The two leaders have been working together since the club began six years ago. Bernick’s daughter Hope had been a member of Clover Kids, but because of her intellectual and physical disabilities from cerebral palsy, Hope’s parents worried she’d get lost in a traditional 4-H club and wondered if it was possible to start one specifically for special needs kids. They got a yes from Iowa State University Extension 4-H Youth Development in Scott County, with Freund agreeing to co-lead, and the club officially began in 2004.
Living the 4-H Motto and Experience
“To me, this club lives the 4-H motto and experience better than any club I’ve ever seen,” said Freund. “They are in it for all the right reasons. They want to learn. They want to make friends. They want to have fun, and they wouldn’t think of complaining.”
The 13-member club meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month in various locations. A neighbor of Freund’s even has opened his shop to use for messy projects like staining garden trellises or pouring cement stepping stones and has donated money for supplies.
On the Wednesday between meetings, the club goes out for dinner. Each member gets a turn to pick a restaurant and then arrives early to let the restaurant know and act as a host. More than just a chance to eat out, though, it provides a social occasion for both the 4-H’ers and their parents and has been a tremendous success.
“Sometimes having a disability can be isolating. They have a hard time fitting in and a hard time being successful,” said Bernick. “Here the families can come together and feel safe, though, because other families understand. Everybody accepts everybody’s situations, and it’s a great feeling, for not only the kids, but families as well.”
The families also have been able to spend a weekend together at Camp Courageous, which is specifically designed for people with disabilities. While there, they were able to climb a tree, go swimming, cook their own meals, do crafts and have a campfire, among other things. Additionally, they have an annual achievement banquet in January to highlight the year’s events. It always is well attended and showcases what the 4-H’ers have done.
One Big Extended Family
“It’s like we’re one big extended family,” said Freund. “At first I was not intending to stay on as a leader, but Karen wanted me to. Now they’d have to force me away. It’s such a rewarding and enriching experience for me and my husband as well.”
As both a leader and parent, Bernick also loves the group dynamics and positive impact it has had in her own daughter’s life. She and her husband, Dan, are both former 4-H’ers, and they attribute a lot of their own growth as youth to the organization.
“Both of us felt it was important to our own development and progression, and we took a lot from that experience into our careers,” she said. “When you have a child with special needs, you have to re-think your dreams -- even the small things like 4-H. You’re not sure if it will be possible, but both of us have been so appreciative of what 4-H has done for Hope.”
Like Any Other 4-H'er
One of the biggest ways they work on helping the kids feel successful is treating them like they would any other 4-H’er. They use parliamentary procedure at their meetings. The kids go through conference judging even if they need the assistance of a parent or helper to talk for them, and they all give presentations to the best of their ability, which can include anything from building a terrarium to making a bird feeder.
Some simply demonstrate something they have accomplished to make their daily lives easier. For example, one boy’s struggle with fine motor skills prevented him from being able to button his shirt. Once a tool had been found to help him be successful, he was then able to share that accomplishment with the group. Another demonstrated how she fed her service dog, and last year, one member was chosen by county judges to give her presentation on decorating cookies at the Iowa State Fair.
“We try to pattern after a traditional 4-H club and have high expectations of the kids. When they’re given the opportunity, they usually come through and do most of the things you expect of them,” said Freund. “You ought to see the smiles on their faces and how proud they are.”
Another big part of treating them like other 4-H kids has been showing horses. New Kingdom Trail Riders, a nonprofit designed to help disabled people ride horses, works closely with the kids throughout the spring and summer and then brings the horses to the fair for them to show in their own classes. In turn, because of the time and expense the organization continues to donate to help the kids show, the club was able to give them a portion of the money from the auctioned bucket-bottle calf last year. Some of the remaining money is being used to help pay for the feed for three more donated bucket-bottle calf projects that will be shown at this summer’s fair.
“I’m just so proud of our 4-H kids. We have to adapt some things, but they participate right along with the other kids,” said Bernick. “4-H is a really great experience for all kids because they can pursue their own interests at their own level and own pace.”
And for Freund, the kids aren’t the only ones benefiting.
“I think the kids have done as much for me and my husband, if not more, than we’ve done for them. It’s really a labor of love,” she said.
About Iowa 4-H Clubs
Iowa youth “learn by doing” in 4-H clubs throughout the state. 4-H clubs can be general interest or focus on specific topics such as special needs, photography, clothing, shooting sports, robotics, gardening, communications, woodworking, food and nutrition or just about any topic that interests kids and teens. Contact your Iowa State University Extension county office, www.extension.iastate.edu/content/county-offices/, to find out about clubs in your county.
About the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program
4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization, serving more than 6 million young people across America with programs in leadership, citizenship, communication and life skills. One in five Iowa school-age youth participates in 4-H. In Iowa, 4-H Youth Development is headquartered at the Iowa State University campus in Ames. 4-H is supported by federal, state and county funding, private grants and donations and fees. For more information about joining 4-H, contact your Iowa State University Extension county office at www.extension.iastate.edu/content/county-offices/ or visit www.extension.iastate.edu/4H