Pennsylvania’s 4-H program celebrating its 100th anniversary

BROOKVILLE — Lois Pifer and Dolly Smouse have served as 4-H program leaders for 41 and 39 years respectively.

And it's this kind of service that has kept the Pennsylvania 4-H program thriving over the last 100 years, said Mya Rushton, team program management coordinator for the 4-H program.

"One of the biggest reasons 4-H has survived for 100 years is because of the dedication of the volunteers," she said. "4-H runs on volunteers. They dedicate their time to teaching kids, guiding them and supporting them. It's incredible."

From its rural beginnings at a corn-growing contest in Mercer County in 1912, the Pennsylvania 4-H program has grown into a global success.

This year, the Pennsylvania 4-H program is commemorating that success through its centennial anniversary.

"It's huge," Rushton said. "It's all across the state, in every single county. And globally, we affect people because of the way we train our youth — they go out and become leaders in our community."

Last week, the Jefferson County Commissioners did their part in celebrating 100 years of 4-H by proclaiming the week of March 11-17 as Pennsylvania 4-H week.

The county's proclamation followed one by Gov. Tom Corbett at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January.

But across the state, the celebration is continuing, as current 4-H members — and even 4-H alums — are telling their stories about how 4-H has positively affected their lives.

According to Rushton, these stories will be published in a book reflecting 100 years of 4-H, and 4-H members and alums will also take their stories to the steps of the Capitol building in Harrisburg April 29 to May 1 to show state legislators why the 4-H program should be supported.

In addition, Penn State Cooperative Extension in State College is creating a centennial quilt and asking all 67 counties to submit one or two quilt squares to contribute to the finished product.

But amid all this celebration comes a time to reflect, too.

"I think that we need to recognize where the organization is going," Rushton said. "It's always good to go back to our roots and know where you came from, but 4-H is moving forward."

The Pennsylvania 4-H program has more than 110,000 members.

Locally, Jefferson County has a 4-H membership of 183 traditional members led by 57 adult and teen leaders.

Both Rushton and 4-H educator Susan Alexander believe 4-H has been so successful because of the adult mentoring a child component, but they also believe 4-H has kept up with the times.

"We still have a lot of need for that traditional adult mentoring, and helping kids to learn skills, but the subject matter has changed a little bit,” Alexander said.

4-H has now become very science-oriented.

Although everything 4-H teaches has always been research-based, there’s an even bigger push for 4-H leaders to train members in science, technology, engineering and math, Rushton said.

One of the goals set forth by the national 4-H program is to turn one million 4-H members into scientists.

“We ask, ‘What does society need?’ and that’s what we prepare our youth for,” Rushton said. “We need more and more scientists.”

4-H programs in Jefferson and Clearfield counties have recently become involved in the First Robotics Competition, which takes place today in Pittsburgh.

“It’s about progression — what’s out there next?” Rushton said.

The mission of 4-H is to assist youth in acquiring knowledge, developing life skills and forming attitudes that will enable them to become self-directing, productive and contributing members of society.

According to Alexander, 4-H leaders work very hard to develop the leadership skills of their kids and to teach them to give back to the communities in which they live and work.

“Studies have shown that the kids that are learning leadership skills are more likely to be successful and more likely to function as successful adults,” Rushton said.

4-H members are permitted to begin raising livestock at the age of eight, and at that time, they begin to learn valuable skills, including citizenship, leadership, responsibility, accountability, conflict management, communication skills and team building.

“If you’re raising an animal, the amount of responsibility and accountability is pretty intense, because if you don’t feed the animal, it dies,” Rushton said. “That’s a huge amount of pressure.”

Pifer said the members she has taught over her 41 years as a leader “learn by doing,” which she believes is also critical for adulthood.

“It’s about preparing our youth for what’s ahead, teaching them to be active, productive adults and giving them the encouragement and empowerment they need to be successful,” Rushton said.