PUNXSUTAWNEY — To make the best better” has been the motto of the 4-H Club for the past 100 years.
And making the best better is just what Jefferson County 4-H volunteer leaders Lois Pifer and Diane “Dolly” Smouse have been doing for 40 of those 100 years.
The “learn by doing,” life-skills program engages area youth members, ages five to 19, in carrying out the mission of the club’s founding four H’s: Head, hands, heart and health.
According to Susan Alexander, cooperative extension educator for Penn State, members pledge their heads “to clearer thinking,” their hearts to “greater loyalty,” their hands to “larger service,” and their health to “better living” for their “club, community, country and world.”
Eighty four-year-old Pifer, of Reynoldsville Road, who has volunteered for 40 years, and 79-year-old Smouse, of Punxsutawney, who has volunteered for 38, have spent the past nearly-half century holding true to that pledge and leading youth members by example.
“Dolly and Lois are both a couple of the ones that I know I can give a call to, and they’re going to step forward and help me when I need some extra help,” Alexander said.
Their unanimous reason for so many years of service behind them seems to be simply and solely: “For the kids.”
The reward, Smouse said, is “when you see them with that smile and their ribbon.”
A world-wide “informal education program,” the goal of the 4-H is to foster “citizenship and leadership,” in addition to personal growth through various experiences, Alexander said.
Now present in 80 countries, the 4-H formed in Ohio in 1902 to initiate the acceptance of new agricultural technologies, but has evolved to become a club focused on the development of, according to Alexander, “confidence, cooperation and responsibility.”
Anchored by an educational institution in each state, Pennsylvania’s 4-H program is “parented” by a Penn State Cooperative Extension Program.
The Jefferson County chapter is comprised of 54 adult volunteers supervising 203 members in 16 traditional clubs, plus an additional 900 members involved in special interest and after-school programs, Alexander said.
The completely volunteer-guided clubs throughout the county — which all hone different names, ranging from Brookville’s “Top Guns” to Punxsutawney’s “Fast and Furious” — each focus on various primary projects in areas including horses, swine, beef, goats, dairy, sheep, lambs, rabbits, photography, leadership, air rifles, sewing and cooking. Raised in rural Pennsylvania and beginning membership in their youth, both Pifer and Smouse have always lived, what they call, the “4-H lifestyle.” Back then, Smouse said, people lived on farms, made their own clothes and “cooked everything from scratch.”
“If you couldn’t walk there, you couldn’t do it,” she said.
While the principles of the program have remained the same, the times are not what they were 40 years ago.
“I was in clothing for three years, and I was in potato for one year,” Pifer said. “A man in Reynoldsville would buy the seed potatoes, and you planted it, and then after you’d harvested it, you had to give him three bushel.”
Potato and clothing clubs are hard-pressed to find, or fill, now, however. Both leaders have noticed a decline of member interest in activities that were once popular, such as sewing. Additionally, the fast-paced, busy lifestyle of today has caused a slide in 4-H meeting attendance.
“You didn’t have everywhere to go like you do now,” Smouse said.
“The kids now, they have too many other things,” Pifer said. “It’s not hip anymore. We’ve had 60 members in our little club. Now you’re lucky if you have six.”
The most notable change and challenge faced by the pair, however, has been dealing with advancements in technology, as everything, Smouse said, “has gone computer.”
“We have a new enrollment system online,” Alexander said. “We’re all dealing with the challenges of that.”
Following in the family footsteps, all seven of Pifer’s children and all three of Smouse’s have been involved with 4-H. Smouse’s daughters, Sherri Spicher and Susan Breth, have both served as volunteer leaders for nearly half as long as she has.
Spicher, whose son and daughter are also 4-H members, credits her mother for her interest in the club.
“It’s wonderful. You can see how she enjoys working with the kids and just being able to give them experiences they might not get at home,” she said. “You see the kids grow, they develop responsibility. It’s nice to see the kids take charge of something.”
The common misconception of the club is the idea that it’s strictly designed for residents of rural areas. Yet even within Jefferson County, members don’t have to be a horseman to observe the four H’s.
“That’s one of the things that a lot of people think, that you have to be on a farm or something to be in 4-H today,” Alexander said. “We have very few members that are really from a farm. We have a lot of kids that live within the city limits and board their horses someplace else or they have cattle that they lease.”
The dynamic duo, after observing nearly half of 4-H’s lifespan, plans to continue volunteering with the club as long as they, according to Smouse, “can keep going.” For Smouse and Pifer, 40 years of service does not mark a measure of time, rather, it’s just another number.
“You don’t count it in years,” Smouse said. “That’s what you’ve been doing, you just keep doing it. It’s a way of life.”