Have you ever been to the wonderful 4-H Youth Development Center on Lay Lake near Columbiana? Then you have seen the "bricks and mortar" impact of a crucial friend of Alabama’s young people: the Alabama 4-H Club Foundation. Thanks to the Foundation’s fundraising efforts, thousands of kids from around the state are able to attend traditional 4-H camp, the Coosa River Science School, and other activities at one of the nation’s premier youth development and environmental education centers.
However, the Foundation is much more than the group of key leaders behind the fundraising that created the Center. It is a group of caring individuals who are deeply committed to building opportunities and resources for young people all across Alabama. From supporting local leadership programs to investing in new technological innovations, the 4-H Foundation is as connected to the future as it is linked to our proud past.
The Alabama 4-H Club Foundation was established in July 1956 for the purpose of "augmenting and enhancing the educational, leadership and citizenship training of young people in Alabama." The board, under the early chairmanship of C. J. Coley of Alexander City and A. L. Johnson of Decatur, envisioned a youth development program where young people from every corner of Alabama could gain hands-on experience and knowledge.
As older 4-H alumni will tell you, summer 4-H camp once meant a trip out of state, so the first major project of the Foundation Board was a capital fund campaign to support the building of an Alabama summer camp facility and the ongoing sustainment of the 4-H Program. During the campaign, the principal raised was reserved for the center, with endowment income going to assist youth activities at the community level.
In 1978, the board voted to build the 4-H Youth Center in Shelby County on land leased from Alabama Power Company. The Center opened to 4-H club youth in 1980. Since the initial building projects and the first campers, the Foundation has continued to aid the growth of the Center: obtaining support for dormitories, a recreational center, and other new buildings and facility improvements.
The most recent major construction project was the creation of the stunning, yet functional, Environmental Science Education Center. The Environmental Center has 17,500-square feet of meeting rooms, laboratory classrooms and animal displays. When it is not filled with inquisitive and active young people, it is often the site for grown-ups’ corporate or organizational retreats and meetings.
Because of the Center, Alabama 4-H is able to reach more than 5,000 youth through its Coosa River Science School. Thousands more continue the tradition of 4-H summer camp, and more and more schools and youth organizations host the Center’s exciting raptor and herpetology outreach programs – real snakes and real hawks go to meet real kids.
Since the decades of major construction projects have helped the Foundation meet many of its long-term building goals, the group has been able to expand its efforts in supporting 4-H in communities across the state with a specific future focus on reaching underserved audiences in rural and urban areas. As within 4-H history, the Foundation recognizes 4-H might be not only the best opportunity for young people to advance, it may be one of the few opportunities in a rural or urban area.
Chaired by Dorman Grace of Jasper, the 4-H Club Foundation includes more than a dozen outstanding directors, with ex-officio membership drawn from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System staff. And even though some of them come from "old-school" 4-H, they have a keen attention and dedication to the changing needs and interests of Alabama’s youth. One of the most recent projects to garner their support is a new app to introduce contemporary young people to the opportunities of 4-H – in games and videos striking the right chord with the generation brought up on Instagram, texts and smartphones.
Galen Grace, the 4-H Foundation’s development officer, noted there are meaningful ways in which 4-H family and friends can assist in the Foundation’s effort. If you would like to find out how you can assist, go to their website, www.alabama4hfoundation.org/, to learn about the Foundation’s activities. As an individual or as a business or industry, you can help provide scholarships, train volunteers, and develop new and improved methods of reaching Alabama’s youth. It’s up to people like us to help develop the next generation of leaders in the sciences and engineering, to address such issues as childhood health and nutrition, and build the Belonging, Independence, Generosity and Mastery that are the core of the 4-H experience.
The Foundation is tremendously interested in helping build the Alabama 4-H Alumni Association, a free membership which helps former 4-Hers stay connected with one another and the 4-H youth development program. So if you were in 4-H, sign up!
With friends like these, Alabama young people can conquer the world.
Chuck Hill is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist.