4-H youth cope with pandemic in creative ways

Gloria Hafemeister
Little children like these two, Carley Ehlke, Kohlsville and Alaya Hafemeister, Hustisford, look forward to county fairs.

The year 2020 has been a strange one for 4-H youth enrolled in a variety of projects and activities throughout the year. Many activities, including project training meetings, camps, workshops and fairs, have been cancelled. Meetings are limited in number and youth have needed to find ways to cope.

The response of youth and leaders throughout the state varies but they are finding unique ways to complete their projects.

Emily Crook, positive youth development educator at LaCrosse County Extension says, “For those who are still interested in showcasing the work they have done in their projects, we are working at hosting virtual events. None of the events 4-H is planning will be tied to the fair; there will be no judging, ribbons or premiums. But the youth will still have fun exhibiting and getting feedback on their projects. And since these aren't tied to the fair, we are able to host these events later in the year, perhaps when social distancing rules have relaxed a bit.”

Crook added that youth still have the opportunity to showcase their projects and receive awards for them by submitting record books.

"Record books are a strong tradition in 4-H that focus on the reflective piece of how a youth has grown in their project,” she added.

For many youth, the cancellation of the Wisconsin State Fairs means they will be unable to send their award winning entries from the 2019 fair to compete at the state level this year. This has been a disappointment to many who strive hard for the opportunity to compete at state.

“The nice thing about the fair being completely cancelled (as opposed to some of it cancelled and some of it not) is that everyone is on the same page for next year, all projects are handled equally," Crook said. "With one entire fair wiped out, all those that qualified for state fair the year prior who didn't get to go, will most likely be carried over to the next state fair."

Crook says that youth who age out of their 4-H membership may miss out on some opportunities.

"Which is very unfortunate, but we do hope that youth find other ways to showcase their exhibits within the community, and I am working on establishing those opportunities,” she said. 

Meanwhile, 4-H members throughout the state are doing what 4-Hers do best – they are making the best of a sad situation.

When the Dodge County Fair Board made the decision to cancel the Junior Fair in its entirety along with the Fair, youth were left uncertain about how they could show their projects. Some have found ways to show their projects albeit not in the traditional sense.

4-H and University of Wisconsin Division of Extension issued guidance around what 4-H can and cannot do with large in-person gatherings and with Fairs that cancelled or modified. In short, Extension cannot promote or share participant information with non-partner events.

In Dodge County, youth who regularly show livestock are hoping to be able to continue the tradition by organizing their own jackpot show and holding it at the show arena at the Fairgrounds. The youth are getting help from livestock organizations as far as insurance and guidance and the activities are in no way connected with Dodge County 4-H, even though many of the exhibitors are members of 4-H. Dairy breed associations are also holding their shows and 4-Hers can participate but not as 4-H members – only as individuals.

Some 4-H'ers are participating in virtual project activities or they are doing community service as a family unit (roadside cleanup) only. Kids are also giving their 4-H Demonstrations virtually – either presenting live at a club meeting via Zoom or recording their demonstration on YouTube or another video platform.

Sinissippi 4-H members in Dodge County have been doing online scavenger hunts together, participating in virtual icebreaker activities, playing 4-H Jeopardy, and project sharing – all via Zoom.

Sinissippi 4-H leader Tracy Malterer says, “It's very challenging (the biggest challenge is consistent internet access for all) but keeping a 4-H connection with youth and volunteers has been a constant priority.”

Braden Paplham, member of the Sinissippi 4-H Club, did not have any livestock projects but was enrolled in the videography project. He said the pandemic actually gave him opportunities to learn more about making professional videos that he might not have otherwise had.

“I have been doing a video of our church services each week,” says the 15-year-old 4-H'er. “Our pastor is very knowledgeable and has been helping me learn how to edit the videos and learn more about it.”

His sister, Lydia, is a first year member. One of her projects is woodworking and without the help of 4-H project leaders she has now received help from her dad. While she is still learning about woodworking, she intends to take the project again next year.

These youth have taken the whole pandemic situation in stride and they believe it is teaching them how to adapt to emergency situations and to do what the 4-H motto says — “Make the best better.”

One of the highlights of county fair for many little children who are not old enough to join 4-h is the Little Britches events held at many fairs.  These children are excited to be able to show a calf or a lamb before an audience and judges even though they do not get premium money for their effort.

Younger children who were not yet official members of 4-H or youth organizations previously enjoyed the opportunity to participate in activities like “Little brother – little sister” showcasing of projects or to exhibit calves or lambs in a “Little Britches” type event. While some had already chosen animals for the event, unfortunately they will not have the opportunity to enter the show ring.

One 4-H mom found a way to deal with the children’s disappointment in the cancellation of their fair by making plans to host a “theme birthday party” during which those attending the birthday party can bring a calf and “compete” with their friends in a small show ring right on their farm. If the birthday guests do not have their own animals they will have the opportunity to show their hosts’ calves. Every participant will receive a ribbon and the experience of showing.

COVID 19 has presented challenges for these activities that have been fun and educational for youth throughout the state but it has also provided opportunities to youth and their leaders to meet the challenge and come up with innovative solutions.