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Skills to Lead for a Lifetime - 4-H Empowers Napa County Youth


As a child, I can remember during family gatherings, my grandmother going into her attic and bringing out boxes of old family photos for us to sift through. Amidst pictures of kids in cowboy boots, Sissy the family dog and neighborhood pool parties, there were many images of my aunts dressed in 4-H uniforms proudly showing their steers, dairy cattle and horses.

When I was old enough to join 4-H, I can’t remember if I told my parents that I wanted to join, or if I was given the opportunity and all for it. What I do remember though, is how proud I was to be a 4-H member and how many of my great childhood memories were from my 4-H experiences.

The history of 4-H in California begins in the early 1900s. The original intent of the 4-H youth development program was to educate and train youth living in rural areas in current agricultural practices through “hands on” learning. In later years as the program began to extend into urban areas, its focus shifted to enhancing youth personal growth. Life skills development was incorporated into most 4-H projects, activities and events. The ultimate goal: to help youth become contributing, productive, self-starting members of society.

When people hear about 4-H, they usually say to members, “Oh, so you raise animals then.” The 4-H youth development program is so much more than that. There are many projects that members can be a part of aside from animals – including cooking, arts and crafts, archery, rocketry, environmental science, dance, robotics, gardening and leadership – just to name a few. By participating in these projects, members develop skills that they will use throughout their lives: working in groups, identifying goals, public speaking, self reflection and adapting to new situations. The program also emphasizes citizenship and community service by promoting events and activities that serve the community. It ultimately teaches youth to be lifelong learners, and caring and conscientious members of their communities and society as a whole.

A perfect example of how 4-H teaches lifelong skills in Napa County, is by the Countywide 4-H Camp project. This project spans over ten months and includes monthly planning meetings, culminating in a weeklong camp in Las Posadas National Forest located in Angwin. Monthly meetings include both leadership training and camp planning. Teen members learn how to organize events, meet deadlines, create project task lists, communicate with both peers and adults, use conflict resolution skills and lead project activities – everything they will need to thrive in the workplace. Most importantly, they have a great time doing it. Many of the relationships made at 4-H Camp are the ones that will influence their lives forever.

The main avenue for 4-H members to showcase their accomplishments in projects over the year is to exhibit them at the Napa Town and Country Fair. There are over 50 different classes that members can enter ranging from chickens, sheep and dairy goats…to woodworking, cake decorating and textiles. Members attend project meetings held throughout the year led by teens and volunteer adults. These project meetings create an opportunity for leadership development and hands on learning. Throughout the year, members will create many different items to show at the fair such as cakes, photos, benches, mini gardens and crafts.

4-H has a great learning model of “learning by doing” while developing young leaders as well. The program depends on teens to help lead projects, judge different events, lead events and much more. Many alumni credit 4-H for helping them to develop their collaboration, leadership and presentation skills. The valuable skills young people gain while in 4-H help prepare them for the next chapters in their lives.

Project leaders hold six or more hours of meeting time. For some projects only one item is created, and for others, a new item every meeting. The costs associated with the projects vary as well. A baking or cake decorating project will have a lower fee, while a large livestock project can cost thousands of dollars. In addition to individual projects, some clubs enter group items as well. There is definitely something for everyone in 4-H.

Once members have entered and delivered all their items to the fair, that’s when the fun really begins! A week packed full of carnival rides, mountains of fries, and animal festivities. Some members enter multiple animals and will show over multiple days. There are classes where the quality of the animal is judged, as well as, classes judging the showman. Showmanship is another example of “learning by doing” where members bring the skills and knowledge they have learned all year to the show ring or show table. Small animal showmanship occurs with poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs and pygmy goats. These showmen work very hard and are asked many challenging questions by judges as they show their animals. Located in the barn are the large animals – dairy goats, dairy cows, steers, swine, sheep and borer goats. These showmen also work hard grooming their animals and using the knowledge they have learned in the show ring. If you happen to win the showmanship class for your age group, you receive the privilege of showing in Round Robin with all different types of animals at the fair to determine the champion showman on Friday.

Some members don’t sell their animals at the fair. These animals are considered breeding stock and cared for by members year round. The members who raise market livestock, end their week by selling their animals at the Napa Town and Country Fair Junior Livestock Auction. Buyers come from near and far to support these youth and their projects. Many are repeat supporters. Their generosity is what allows 4-H youth to repeat their animal projects year after year.

And then it’s over, just like that! The Napa Town and Country Fair marks the end of the 4-H year…and summer as well. With another year worth of 4-H events and experiences committed to memory, it’s time for members of all ages to change their focus back to school and what lies ahead. Taking the skills they’ve learned to continue to achieve their goals in school, 4-H and life.

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