In the Auburn University archives is a 1920s-era comment from the mayor of Birmingham, "It is unfortunate that city children are not provided with the same 4-H opportunities that rural children have."
Little could he have guessed the changes that would have taken place in Alabama during the past century. Our state has become increasingly urban: a quarter of our population now lives in two counties, while half of our counties have fewer than 30,000 residents. Although there are a few wonderful exceptions, the old foundation of Alabama-culture, the family farm, has almost become a sacred memory.
No visionary could have imagined what kids’ lives would be like today. It’s the generation of FaceBook and iPhones, Advanced Placement Exams and MTV. The immediacy and materialism of modern society have replaced the old challenges of childhood with new, but equal, challenges. Those challenges are just one reason why 4-H remains important.
Although 4-H continues to be crucial in rural counties, where young people’s opportunities can be limited, it’s also important in urban and suburban locales where kids need "hands-on, minds-on" learning experiences in such 4-H programs as science, engineering and technology. Where does our food come from? Why are plants and animals important? What training do I need to have a technological career? Those are questions 4-H helps answer.
Mobile County 4-H offers a perfect example of how 4-H is responding to our state’s changing population and the changing needs and interests of young people. Through participation in vital programs like Junior Master Gardener (JMG), National Youth Science Day, and Farm and City Education Safety Day, young people supplement their classroom experiences by "getting their hands dirty," and building their sense of Belonging, Independence, Generosity and Mastery.
As Victoria Tanner, a 4-H member, noted, "Being a 4-H officer has strengthened my leadership skills. I made a lot of friends at 4-H Camp."
Naturally, being a thoroughly-modern young person, she "keeps up with them on FaceBook."
Mobile County’s Alabama Cooperative Extension System staff and volunteers are justifiably proud of the success of their JMG program. Urban and suburban kids have been involved "from the ground up" in planning, planting, cultivating and harvesting vegetables and ornamental plants.
Want to learn about Integrated Pest Management strategies? Talk to a 4-H club member who has been through the training.
And working with adult volunteer leaders like Penny Smith and Tammy Wittner, the kids have had lessons in generosity reinforced through the groups’ support of local food banks.
And did YOU once keep a 4-H Record Book? You won’t be surprised to learn Mobile County 4-H club members were assigned to a research team to gather data, record observations and draw conclusions about the different varieties of tomatoes they planted. Now that is 4-H!
While urban/suburban young people don’t generally look for an opportunity to see how much cotton or corn they can harvest from an acre — as happened in the "good old days" — they continue to enjoy seeing the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor. And, following the "Tomato Club" tradition, the young people have learned to make jam and jelly.
Every county in Alabama is different, with unique resources and challenges. However, from Waterloo to Grangeburg, from Grand Bay to Bryant, 4-H continues to make a difference in Alabama communities and the lives of our youth.
So, if you see a 4-H Clover in the middle of a flowerbed in the heart of Mobile or Birmingham, don’t be surprised: it’s just what we do.
Chuck Hill is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist.