As National 4-H Week arrives, both club members and staff learn to connect virtually

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Chippewa County 4-H members put together fall wreaths.

Despite COVID-19 preventing many of Wisconsin's 4-H clubs from meeting in person, creative solutions have been adopted so they can observe the essential elements of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity during National 4-H Week.

Especially now when community service and independent work are such a big part of many Wisconsinites' daily lives, positive youth development extension educator Pat Wagner said 4-H club members are working harder than ever to come up with ways to give back to the community. She also said it's important that 4-H'ers are working on ways to stay motivated and engaged through e-learning.

Wagner said some groups have been doing highway cleanups, a solution to close-contact concerns where kids can stay apart in the outdoors and avoid using the same equipment, while also helping clean up their communities and the environment. She also said for Halloween that some will be meeting outside at picnic tables to carve and decorate pumpkins to get in the fall festive mood.

"Project work ... helps them build knowledge and skills and gives them an opportunity to engage in learning and really get a good mastery of a project area or skillset they're working on," Wagner said. "Young people still need to feel like they're doing something positive for themselves as well as others."

While some clubs are meeting in groups of 10 people or less, others are meeting virtually, which is allowing more people to have access to 4-H activities and help them feel like they belong. For those still meeting, Wagner said they are doing it outside to practice social distancing.

Wisconsin 4-H hosted virtual events throughout the week, both for families already a part of 4-H and for those interested in joining to celebrate 4-H recognition. On Thursday night's agenda is a virtual trivia contest, and some other counties have been doing virtual fundraisers, like Iowa County, who has been fundraising with Culver's. Wagner said some clubs are also holding poster contests where kids can submit pictures of their creations.

Calumet County 4-H puts together meal boxes for families to make mac and cheese.

Moving forward, Wagner said educators and other 4-H leaders across the state are still on the lookout for creative ideas to use in their virtual programming, since many of the regular activities are no longer possible due to the need for social distancing and self-isolation. Even though those events are gone, like county fairs, she said the organization is still working to empower young people.

"4-H is about empowering youth to reach their full potential," Wagner said. "Things are looking a lot different than they did in 2019, but as we move forward, we're constantly trying to look for new ways to meet the needs of young people in Wisconsin."

Wisconsin 4-H educational programs specialist Amber Rehberg said the organization is helping youth to connect with each other as well as nature, art, agriculture, leadership and more. She said that over the summer, 4-H clubs experienced virtual workshops that focused on writing, resume building, personal finance, and nutrition, among other topics.

Summer's virtual activities are the influence for this school year's programming, which is set to release in Nov. Rehberg said that ordinarily their programming would be released earlier, but due to setbacks caused by COVID-19, the release was delayed this year. She added that many projects and other curriculum will be able to be done at home rather than in person. 

"We keep hearing about virtual fatigue – our members are on the computer for school all day and many of them for work. We're just excited that they're interested and want to engage with us in this space," Rehberg said. "We're going to build out that virtual community."

Medora Richards, a member of the Arlington Prairie Producers 4-H club, has sewn over 400 face coverings since the pandemic began.

This year's 4-H Fall Forum, which is usually held in Green Lake, will also be held virtually Nov. 6-7. Rehberg said the event has already received over 400 attendance confirmations and more are still coming in. Registration closes Oct. 9, and those who registered by Oct. 1 will receive T-shirts and other goodies by mail. The forum will feature a keynote speech from National 4-H Council president and CEO Jennifer Sirangelo as well as interactive sessions and plenty of workshops.

Assistant program manager Jennifer Swensen said she's inspired by all the work both staff and families have put into making 4-H go full steam ahead this year. She said the organization is just now rolling out the Wisconsin 4-H Movement, which hopes to inspire young people for positive change with a slogan of "Together we can make the best, better."

"There's a lot of great things happening. I think it's an exciting time," Swensen said. "We've been able to be creative and involved with people where they're at and ensuring that the 4-H program is still moving forward in a great direction."

Rehberg said one of 4-H's biggest programs every year is their camping program, which they weren't able to do this year. But instead of forgoing it entirely, staff worked together to produce "Camp in a Box," which sent boxes to 4-H families with all the tools needed to camp right in their backyard. The boxes also included different activities, including art, nature and service opportunities. She said they've also sent home "Discover 4-H in a Box" mailings to families interested in joining the organization, which included arts and crafts and experiment kits for science or agriculture.

4-H families have also been giving back to their communities through senior pen pals, where youth can send letters to older people in nursing homes who aren't allowed to have visitors at this time, or sending goodie bags to health care workers across the state. Rehberg said 4-H'ers are staying connected with their communities despite the limitations COVID-19 has introduced.

"Everybody is doing what they can to try to adjust and adapt," Rehberg said. "I think we're finding a groove and doing what we can to continue helping young people to find some sense of belonging – being part of a community where they can learn, grow and develop important skills."