What do a sixth-grader with a prize-winning cow, a home-schooled forestry enthusiast, a singer who aspires to a medical career and a teenager who enjoys dance and choreography have in common? They’re all members of the largest youth leadership organization in the country: 4-H.
In Georgia, more than 240,000 youths ages 9 to 19 participate in the program in an average year through University of Georgia Cooperative Extension under the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Nationally, 4-H reaches more than 6 million young people through regular club membership, short-term learning experiences, school enrichment programs and camping. “The opportunities offered by 4-H today far exceed the organization’s beginnings as an agricultural and a homemaking program more than 100 years ago,” says Melinda Miller, program development coordinator for the 4-H Southwest District. Miller is an alumna of the Lowndes County 4-H program.
“Young people who participate in today’s 4-H learn life skills, community involvement and how to become responsible, active and engaged citizens through service and leadership,” she says.
Each year, 4-H’ers choose from more than 70 project topics such as agriculture, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, healthy living and civic engagement. They then make presentations on those topics to judging panels, and the competition is rigorous. Many 4-H’ers go on to receive college scholarships or earn district and state leadership roles because of their involvement in 4-H.
Home-schooler nets state award
As a youngster in Stockbridge, Lisa D. Ellis wanted to participate in 4-H but thought you had to live on a farm to join. While home-schooling her sons, Gus and Luca Federico, she heard about 4-H for home-schoolers.
“I reached out, not only because I had wanted to be in 4-H myself as a kid but because it was a way to expand our curriculum and extracurricular activities,” the Cartersville mom says.
Gus Federico chose history as his first 4-H project in fifth grade, but by middle school he joined the forestry project team.
“Last year, our team placed first in district and state forestry judging competitions,” he says. “I placed highest overall individual in state. Then last summer, we went to nationals, where our team placed first. Nationals was hard work, because not only did we need to know insects, diseases and trees in Georgia, we also had to know many (that are found throughout the U.S.).” Federico has been dual-enrolled at Georgia Highlands College in Cartersville since 10th grade. He will complete his high school graduation requirements this spring and shortly thereafter will finish his college core curriculum, thanks in part to a scholarship awarded to him by the Taylor Foundation because of his 4-H activities. He’s applying to colleges to study history.
National prize-winning cow
Jace Smith joined 4-H in Hall County in fifth grade. He wanted to raise a calf — not just any calf but a Fleckvieh, a breed that’s not very common in the South. “My dad helped me find one at TNT Farms in Cleveland, and I got Lady Mae when she was just 4 months old,” says 12-year-old Smith, a sixth-grader at North Hall Middle School in Gainesville. “Now she’s as tall as I am, but she weighs about 900 pounds and I only weigh 95.” The family lives on a small farm in Clermont and keeps about 10 head of cattle. Smith spends a few hours each day training Lady Mae to walk with a halter. In the process, the two of them have bonded. “She follows me around like a dog and is always waiting for me when it’s time to train,” he says.
Once he started doing shows, Smith and Lady Mae attracted regional and national attention. “His awards ranking allowed him to participate in the National Cattle Show in Louisville, Kentucky, last fall. Jace was the youngest person in the ring at age 12, and his Lady Mae was named Supreme Grand Champion, the highest national honor for the breed,” says his mom, Lauren Smith. “Jace competed against about 30 youths and adults with a lot more experience than he has. When the judges announced he’d won the big prize and beat out all those other cows, we all started crying and hugging each other.”
When Dodge County 4-H agent Keshia Jones spoke to Katie Beth Brewer’s fourth-grade class, the then-10-year-old knew 4-H was for her.
“I thought you had to be a farmer to be in 4-H,” says Katie Beth’s mom, Jodi Brewer. “But that’s not correct; 4-H is for any youth. Her father, Ash, and I have been thrilled to see how much she’s learned and grown because of 4-H.”
Beth Brewer chose performing arts/singing as her focus and soon became part of the Clovers and Co. performance group of about 50 fourth through 12th graders.
In 2020, she was elected to the Southeast District board and the following year was voted state president, beginning her one-year term last July. The 17-year-old’s role takes her across the state and the region to represent Georgia 4-H.
In addition to her 4-H activities, Brewer is dual-enrolled in Veritas Classical Schools and Middle Georgia State University, both in Macon. She has been accepted for early admission to UGA in Athens.
“As much as I enjoy music, I want to be a doctor,” she says. “I know it will be a long journey, but I’m prepared. However, music will always be part of my life.”
Second generation of 4-H
As the daughter of a 4-H alumna, Janey Miller has 4-H in her blood, particularly because her mother, Melinda Miller, is the program development coordinator for Georgia 4-H’s Southwest District.
“I used to go to meetings with my mom before I was old enough to be in 4-H,” says the 16-year-old junior at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. “So I joined the Clover Buds, a 4-H program for kindergarteners to third graders; my first project was cat care.”
When she joined the Lowndes High School Georgia Bridgemen’s color guard, she found her passion.
“Once I entered high school I turned to dance as my project and placed first in the state for my choreography, performing with sabers, rifles and flags,” she says.
Last year, Miller was selected to participate in the 4-H National Congress, a convention that includes presentations by leadership professionals and motivational speakers from across the country.
“Because of my state achievements, I had the chance to go to National Congress in Atlanta last year,” she says. “It was a chance to meet 4-H’ers from other places and find out how their 4-H is different (from) — and the same as — ours.”
Parents and adult leaders praise 4-H’s influence on youths.
“Once these students become involved with 4-H and find their interests, they can really excel,” says Lori Purcell Bledsoe, 4-H program development coordinator for Northwest Georgia. “They learn teamwork, civic responsibility and how to be confident, self-assured citizens. All it takes is finding that spark.”