AMES, Iowa – Getting colored sand into a waterbottle is more than just a three-minute activity for the new Resource Center 4-H club in Mills County. Full concentration is on transferring the sand from the spoon to the funnel despite shaky hands and a lack of fine and gross motor skills. But the boys aren’t to be defeated by a little bit of spilled sand or a slower pace. It’s 4-H night once again, and they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“They always say, ‘when do we get to do 4-H again?’” said Mills County Youth Coordinator Stephanie Bowden. “They’ve given all of us fresh eyes to see the little things in life and how special they are. We get wrapped up in all the busy, chaotic things, but if they can get sand in a funnel it’s a good day. The kids are really offering mentoring to us all.”
Having Fun and Finding Success
Unlike typical 4-H clubs, this one is composed of strictly special-needs kids. The eight boys live together at the Glenwood Resource Center and have a calendar in their house with 4-H clover stickers to mark the first and third Thursdays of the month when their meetings are held. For them, 4-H is both a highlight of their week and a reward to do something outside of their usual routine while finding success.
“The boys get so much enjoyment and fun out of it. They get to go out and have fun, and it’s something to look forward to,” said co-leader Amber Brockman. “I get the most wonderful hugs or awesome high fives. I love going up there. They keep me on my feet.”
Amber and her parents, Diane and Byron, are the ones who got the idea to start the club after her brother and their son, Cory, moved to the Resource Center. He had been tagging along to Amber’s 4-H meetings for years and had shown chickens at the county fair while in a wheelchair. However, he had never been an actual 4-H’er until Byron suggested the idea, and Amber ran with it.
“At first I was wondering what Byron was thinking. I thought ‘oh no’, but now it’s ‘why hadn’t we though of something like that sooner?’” said Diane. “We inherited seven boys. They call us mom and dad even though they have their own parents. It’s a family thing.”
Currently, the boys are working on a horticulture project for their first county fair this upcoming summer. They filled two large planter boxes on legs with flowers and garden ornaments to grow for both individual and group exhibits, and they will be in charge of watering and maintaining the plants.
The club also is hoping to raise chickens and will use crafts like sand art or marble paintings from their meetings for projects as well. Rather than seeing their disabilities as a limiting participation factor, both the Brockmans and Bowden see it as an opportunity to adapt and have fun.
Instead of bowling balls and pins, they use two-liter pop bottles and bouncy balls or even their wheelchairs, recalling the time that Byron and Diane pushed two of the boys through the pins simply to include them. Instead of saying the 4-H pledge word for word, they point to pictures of the head, heart, hands and health, which is represented by an apple. Instead of giving presentations, they are able to watch and learn from guests who present to them. Recently the dog superintendent came in to give a demonstration on a dog agility course, and the boys loved the opportunity to be involved.
They also love the balloon bop game where the object is to keep four or five balloons from falling to the ground. After searching around on the Internet for games that the club could do, Amber randomly found it looking through a 4-H manual full of basic games, had a blast trying it out with friends in the backyard and introduced it to the boys.
“It’s challenging coming up with something all the boys can do and keep their attention, and the game part made me nervous at first,” said Amber. “The boys had more fun with balloon bop than we did though. They love it and ask if we can play every time.”
For Bowden, the enjoyment is not limited only to the boys and leaders. Amber’s friends have come to help and have become really invested in the boys and club, and the staff at the Resource Center have all taken on 4-H by coming to help at meetings and activities.
Layers of Mentoring
“There is an incredible layering of mentoring. Everyone gains something from everyone else,” said Bowden. “I love the fact that 4-H brought it all about, too. ... We’re still starting something new that’s absolutely positive and wonderful.”
To both Bowden and the Brockmans, 4-H has been an ideal opportunity for the boys to thrive emotionally, mentally and physically. Furthermore, the boys exemplify the values and aims of the organization.
“The boys live out all four ‘H’’s in every way,” said Bowden. “First their heads – through their disability they have the ability to see new things. Then their hearts – 4-H is the love of their life. They bring a unique sense of important belonging to the club. Their hands – no matter how difficult a task is, they do it with 100 percent of their ability and don’t give up when they’re frustrated, and lastly their health. If they have a bad day they’re not allowed to come. It’s a boost to their mental health.”
“Your hearts feel really light and really full when you’re with them,” added Diane. “It’s all about doing our best and having fun.”
And to Amber, leading the 4-H club is a perfect extension of something she wasn’t ready to give up and loves to share with others. One of the friends she recruited to help out had no experience in 4-H and is now “hard to tear away,” according to Amber, and another friend absolutely loves being a part of it. Despite being in college, working fulltime and volunteering in addition to the club, she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I wasn’t ready to be done with 4-H. I had way too much fun,” Amber said. “I will always try to make sure I have enough time to do this.”
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.