Alabama’s oldest youth development organization has begun a year-long celebration to mark its founding.
It’s not scouting, as many might believe. It’s 4-H which has many of the same elements.
The bottom lines are the same in each program—teaching young men and women to be responsible to those around them as they grow up.
Many Alabama leaders—past and present—got their political and humanitarian starts through 4-H and they are eager to talk about what it meant to them.
Gov. Bob Riley, Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and music stars Emmylou Harris, Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry are just a few who learned the basics of good citizenship through 4-H.
For the next year, they and others who have fond memories of 4-H will be helping to celebrate the organization’s founding.
The celebration, which got under way in late August at Auburn, will continue through next year to commemorate the centennial in 2009.
Today, 4-H helps train nearly 60,000 young Alabamians between 9 and 19, providing them with educational programs that include everything from rotation crops to public speaking.
Alabama’s 4-H history can be traced back to Thomas Campbell, who became the state’s first Extension agent, hired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help black farmers.
Campbell soon learned adult farmers were hesitant to change. Their children weren’t and he focused on them because they wanted to learn new ways.
The forerunner of today’s 4-H program was known as Boys Corn Clubs in Anniston and Tuscaloosa. The boy who harvested the most bushels won $25. By the end of 1909, the clubs had more than 2,000 members.
Pike and Walker counties followed with youth organizations of their own, ones that focused on tomatoes instead of corn.
Dorman Grace is a product of that heritage and he’s keeping it strong as a director of a poultry and cattle farm in Walker County.
A third generation manager of Grace Farms, he still has fond memories growing up around thousands of chickens and attending 4-H meetings. He credits 4-H with teaching him "how to treat people," especially when things don’t work out for the best.
"Even though you lose sometime, you’re still a winner because you participated," said Grace. "You may be in a bad situation, but you can still make something good out of it."
Standing near Grace during the kickoff celebration was David Self, an Auburn graduate student who created a wind power machine that quickly caught the attention of youngsters that day.
What he did was take several long pieces of plastic pipe, sliced them in half and then filled them with about two inches of water. The ends had brackets to keep the water from pouring out of the pipes.
Several small wooden boats with sails were placed at one end of the pipes and allowed to maneuver on their own to the other end—aided only by the wind.
"It’s a fun way to think about wind power," he said. "Children get a chance to see it in action and to realize it’s a clean source of energy."
All things being equal, it would seem the boats would end in a tie during their mini-race, but Self said other factors come into play—like "which ones might have a bent rudder."
Gaines Smith, director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension system which oversees the 4-H program, is a firm believer in what the organization has done in the past and will continue to do in the future.
"The special thing about 4-H is that through our educational programs, the lives of so many youth, including me, have been changed.
Alabama’s 4-H program, Smith said, can be an individual as well as a group stepping stone to the future.
"Through 4-H, youth learn about subject matter, but as importantly, they learn about serving their community, they take on leadership responsibilities and they shape their future," Smith said.
Each of Alabama’s 67 counties has 4-H programs and the clubs participate in a variety of activities throughout the state.
Major corporations have done their best to help fund 4-H programs which continue to grow in size and scope each year.
During the summer, Monsanto Co. pitched in with a $50,000 grant to help teach 4-Hers environmental education.
The donation will help build an interactive educational display for the Coosa River Science School at the newly opened 4-H Environmental Science Education Center at Lay Lake in Shelby County.
Jack Odle, chairman of the Alabama 4-H Club Foundation board of directors, lauded Monsanto for its gift, said it will help support ongoing missions.
"Their gift will support the ongoing mission of Alabama 4-H and ensure Alabama youth are taught sound science environmental education," said Odle. "We appreciate their generosity."
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer has cited the importance of 4-H programs reaching young Americans once their classroom studies are finished.
Schafer said 4-H "is key to this success and remains a critical component to providing academically-rich, non-formal programs that take youth engagement to the next level."
Alabama has not wasted any time responding to national calls for more 4-H involvement in needed areas of improvement for the country.
One initiative has been the Alabama 4-H "Maximum Power" program which promotes effective energy use in several areas.
Funded by a grant from the Alabama Department of Community Affairs, the program is taking a look at renewable and non-renewable resources like solar, wind, water, natural gas, petroleum and coal power.
Another area involves energy efficiency like the use of insulation, rechargeable batteries and compact fluorescent bulbs.
Helping to supervise the new 4-H initiative is Emily Kling who is working with younger students, especially those in elementary and middle school youngsters.
"‘Maximum Power’ will provide young people with the hands-on training they need to have a positive impact on energy use and conservation in their families and in their communities," she said earlier this year when the program was announced.
For details about "Maximum Power," contact Margaret Lawrence at (334) 844-5687.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.