Published on 05/19/97

National 4-H Congress Coming to Atlanta

It won't be another Olympics. It will be a big deal, however, to thousands of young Americans. For four years starting in 1998, Atlanta will be the host city for the National 4-H Congress. A site selection committee made the announcement this week.

"National 4-H Congress is the premiere event for 4-H across our country," said Bo Ryles, state 4-H leader with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "Cities nationwide bid for the Congress. We're thrilled the committee chose Atlanta."

National 4-H Congress brings together 4-H'ers from across the nation and U.S. territories. The teens will discuss challenges they will face in the future and will search for solutions.

The Congress convenes the day after Thanksgiving each year. It lasts for four days.

"National 4-H Congress began as a recognition program for outstanding performance in project areas," said Susan Stewart, who coordinates the event.

"It still is," said Stewart, a UGA 4-H specialist. "But it has expanded to be an educational experience that exceeds the scope of what any one state could offer."

Using the lessons of the past 80 years, National 4-H Congress combines its young members' leadership, citizenship and technological skills. And it puts them to work.

The big event almost ended in 1994.

"National 4-H Council determined that (as it was), it could no longer be funded," Stewart said. "After National Council abandoned sponsorship, states picked it up and redefined the mission as an educational experience. They strengthened the program from just a recognition event."

National Congress also has changed to mirror the changing face of 4-H.

With more than 5.5 million members (more than 170,000 in Georgia), 4-H reaches an ever-changing population. It now includes 1 million city dwellers and more than 2 million suburbanites. Only a little more than 700,000 live on farms. About 24 percent are minorities.

"We haven't abandoned our agricultural roots," Stewart said. "We've expanded the audience we serve."

4-H reaches city and suburban kids in the same way it reached rural students at the turn of the century.

"Experiential learning works whether you're raising a steer in Hahira or a backyard garden in Decatur," Stewart said. "We've found urban and suburban applications for agriculture. And we've established 4-H as the premiere organization teaching leadership and citizenship to America's youth."

Georgia's 4-H reputation helped land National Congress in Atlanta.

"We now hope National 4-H Congress will help us spotlight Georgia's outstanding program," Ryles said. "We hope it will introduce 4-H to a new generation of Georgians."

The Congress will bring more than 1,200 young people to the city each year.

"This program will give us an opportunity to unite young people from a multicultural base to network, discuss youth issues and establish relationships they will build on for the rest of their lives," Stewart said. "Atlanta will be a part of that."

One big part of the learning experience of the event is community service.

"What better place to teach service and diversity than 'Atlanta: The City Too Busy to Hate'?" Stewart said. "That's a vital message these young people need to take home."

Stewart hopes the students won't leave without a good dose of Southern hospitality.

"We want them to see the new South. This is a progressive region with the best our country has to offer in climate, industry and agriculture," she said. "We have shown a cooperation of mutual respect between agriculture and business. And that link is clear in Atlanta.

"Plus, Atlanta offers gracious living you can't get any other place in the world," she said.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.