How do people learn to be generous? University research indicates babies are naturally wired to be concerned for other people, but the research also shows the love and attention children receive help them develop empathy and the ability to understand the feelings of others. That empathy is beneficial, not just to society, but it also helps kids grow into adults who are better able to cope with life’s challenges and opportunities.
The research also shows the dark side of that coin. Children who are exposed to violence, disengaged parents, abuse and bullying develop social, mental and physical problems. At its most extreme, the inability to put themselves in "the shoes of others" leads to drug abuse, violence and emotional illness. And we all know a coworker, a fellow choir member or one of our children’s teachers who always seems angry or negative. Not to treat it lightly, but chances are someone wasn’t very nice to them as they were growing up, and they may be more deserving of our sympathy than our anger.
In 4-H, we try to help young people build on their natural goodwill. In fact, "Generosity" is one of our key values, and it is associated with teamwork and good communications. In Alabama 4-H, we have a strong tradition of building generosity in growing kids. In fact, the late Millard Fuller often cited 4-H as one of the key factors in giving him the commitment and the skills needed to build the team which established Habitat for Humanity.
4-H is strongly committed to the idea of "Service Learning." Service Learning is a "hands-on, minds-on" way to combine meaningful community service with instruction and thoughtful reflection. Service enriches knowledge, teaches civic responsibility and strengthens communities.
There are hundreds of stories to tell, since every 4-H Club in every Alabama community engages in some form of Service Learning. For example, a 4-H group in Camden collected canned food items to distribute to needy families in Wilcox County. The Regional Youth Council in Macon and Montgomery Counties packed and wrapped boxes for deployed soldiers and VA hospital patients. The 4-H Regional Council of Clay, Randolph and Talladega Counties put in a full day of "Puppy Love" at the Randolph County Animal Shelter. The Poarch Creek Indians 4-H Club participated in the Great American Bake Sale to raise money so low-income children could have nutritious meals.
On one December day, 4-H kids in Choctaw County collected toys for needy tots and went to the Willow Trace Nursing Center to sing Christmas carols to the residents. They passed out bows to the residents to decorate their Christmas trees. Making a rich, full day of service, they returned to the Extension office where they wrote Christmas cards to "a recovering American soldier" at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. This is the same county where the "4-H Hero Helpers Club" sold paintings to purchase toiletries and personal supplies for the more than 400 soldiers in Afghanistan the club has adopted this year.
Cullman County 4-H groups have a great tradition of Generosity. Among the many service projects they engaged in was their volunteer work with the Cullman County Day of Champions, an event much like Special Olympics. They helped serve lunch to the contestants and assisted wherever they were needed.
"It was great to be able to help out," said R.J. Martin of the Cullman County 4-H Community Club.
Walker County’s 4-H 4 U Club "pledges my hands to larger service." Volunteer leaders Vickie Posey, Tina Klein and Linda Hester motivated their CloverBuds, and junior and senior 4-Hers to decorate holiday cards for military personnel, honor Walker County’s oldest veteran and join a community salute to veterans. They organized a coat and blanket drive, provided food for an adopted family, served holiday meals at an area food center, delivered cakes to residents of Elderly Village and even marched in the Jasper Christmas parade.
In October, the Shelby County Horse Club sponsored their third Saddle Up For St. Jude’s. One hundred participants raised $5,000! Riders got to ride on the great trails on the Sullivan Farm in Thorsby, won great prizes provided by local businesses and were entertained by the Shelby 4-H drill team and musician Ken Byford.
Thanks to the support of our friends at Bonnie Plants, 4-H’s Junior Master Gardener program makes Alabama communities more attractive – and even feeds hungry people. For example, after two teachers launched a JMG program at Montgomery’s Taylor Road Academy, the group of young gardeners immediately began transforming an "eye sore" beside the gym into an attractive outdoor learning center.
The group’s five classes and 64 members have built lifetime skills on things like planting vegetables, herbs and butterfly-attracting plants, and regular watering and maintenance. They even established a composting area and expanded recycling efforts across the campus. The school now recycles everything from paper to food scraps. In January, the students began giving back by donating produce to a nearby assisted living facility. Collards, head lettuce, cabbage and broccoli were the first of many harvests to be delivered to the center.
As an institution, 4-H is deeply committed to generosity. Perhaps no group in America needs our special love and attention as much as Alabama’s military kids and military families. "Doing the right thing" is part of the reasoning behind our "Camp We Can" for military youth with special needs. Because of your support, we were able to let these kids do things they have never done before: go horseback riding and tubing, play Putt Putt, swim, go fishing, and even ride on the zip line!