The Smith Lever Act of 1914 began the Cooperative Extension Service. Now, one hundred years later we celebrate this partnership of county, state and national government. Early program outreach of the University of Wisconsin-Extension focused on needs of rural families. When resistance to science and change among adults was noted, early faculty found they could more easily reach families through youth. This was the genius of early corn, canning and animal clubs for youth. Demonstration and pilot projects with youth opened the door for adults and families to try new things.
4-H youth clubs were organized, often at schools and town halls, to apply science and technologies of plant and animal breeding, food production and farm and home management. Soon youth and adults were proclaiming success and progress. Commonalities between farm and city situations were also noted and programs quickly served all audiences regardless of residence. Community service was thrust into the program during two World Wars as 4-H youth groups led the way to involve families in resource conservation, expanded food production and war supply efforts. For one hundred years a continual and systematic expansion of effort has adapted to changing societal needs and situations. A decline in the percentage of rural residents didn’t reduce the need for Extension, but it expanded the research brought forward to help families. Today Wisconsin residents seek educational assistance more than ever before.
So, what does this bit of historical background on 4-H have to do with today’s 4-H program? Actually, it provides an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the hard work of 4-H educators, volunteers and members over the last 100 years. Just seven youth attended the first 4-H club meeting in Walworth County on October 30, 1914. Today, more than 35,000 youth are enrolled as community club members, and more than 68,000 young people are involved in 4-H through in-school and after-school clubs, day camps, mentoring programs and other opportunities.
Today’s Wisconsin 4-H programming encompasses all interests including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), agriculture and animal science, arts and communications, leadership, healthy living, international exchange and more. 4-H emphasizes youth development through programs that engage members in learning by doing. Research shows that youth involved in 4-H get better grades, are more prepared for school and are more involved when they’re there. 4-H’ers are also two times more likely to plan to go to college and more likely to contribute to their communities.
Celebrating the 4-H Centennial can provide focus for what is already being done. It can enhance existing efforts at the county and state level. It can add excitement! It can help attract attention to the wide variety of 4-H programs available around the state. It can serve as a volunteer recruitment tool as 4-H alumni think about what they received from 4-H. Sprinkle a bit of historical celebration into what is already being done! The Centennial only happens once, so let’s use it to help define and support the good work of 4-H.