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4-H Finds Life Off the Farm


When boys and girls in local 4-H clubs show off their painstakingly raised and groomed farm animals later this month at the Del Mar Fair, they will be taking part in a tradition that has been carried on since 4-H first made its way to San Diego County in 1915.

The 4-H organization, a curiosity to many urban dwellers, might seem to the casual fair-goer a staid holdover from a bygone era of life on the farm. But, in a low-key comeback, the once just-rural organization is proving itself to be relevant to modern community and family needs.

From Valley Center to Encinitas and from Carlsbad to Julian, thousands of North County youths from 9 to 19 years old are participating in diverse 4-H projects--things like rocket science, computers, engineering, nutrition, photography, communications and graphic arts.

Boys and girls work side by side on projects, whether it is learning to sew or mastering the principles of engineering. The goals of the organization are simple: Getting kids involved in hands-on projects that promote a sense of self-worth.

After a slump in participation in the early 1980s, 4-H in San Diego has been growing over the last five years. Today, there are about 13,000 participants throughout the county, many of those in North County. About 1,200 adult volunteers donate their time to work with the youths. There may be a variety of reasons why 4-H fell out of favor--anything from TV programming to the rapid growth of cities--but, when the dust settled, many discovered that the organization provided a good framework for interaction between adults and children. Its egalitarian approach of mixing people by their interests--not their sex or religious or political affiliation--has struck a chord with a new generation.

Vista parent Linda Richards said that 4-H has provided an opportunity for her three children to learn and socialize. None of her children have worked with farm animals in 4-H, but two have become excellent tailors and one has learned about making rockets.

"I just shake my head when one of my kids comes home and says, 'Hey, Mom, we were playing with explosives today,' " Richards said, laughing.

"This day and age, there is not a lot of agriculture for future farmers in this area. We are more business-oriented. We thought these activities would help prepare the children for the business world."

"I feel more confident," 12-year-old David Richards said. "I used to not be able to shoot for things as easily as I can now. In the last meeting, I tried to run for an office on the board, but I didn't make it. I'll try again next year."

David, who has won awards for his sewing talent, may make a run at high fashion when he grows up, although he is also working with small engines and rocketry. He hopes to continue with 4-H until age 19.

According to his mother, David, who is dyslexic, has grown by "leaps and bounds" over the past year. She credits 4-H.

"They get a really good solid form of self-worth through all this," Linda Richards said. "They feel like they can conquer all the bad stuff that's out there in the world."

Rural traditions remain an important component of 4-H, which was founded by Congress in 1914 to help educate rural youth and keep them abreast of modern farming methods.

But the organization--based on the cornerstones of head, heart, hands and health--has followed the nation's population to urban settings.

In most cases, 4-H is a fairly straightforward effort to get kids interested in a particular subject together with adults who can teach them about it. Individual clubs come and go with the interests of volunteer leaders and members. Involvement does not necessarily mean a continuous commitment.

The clubs are supported by the University of California, San Diego County and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The county supplies office space, telephones, staff cars and some financing. The University of California staffs the program through its Extension Service, and is the conduit through which USDA funds reach the program in San Diego.

Although 4-H clubs primarily serve those between the ages of 9 and 19, so-called mini-4-H clubs accommodate the younger siblings of members. There also are some special-needs members, who are much older.

"Promoting an environment that builds self-esteem, and practicing things that build competency help counteract problems that young people face," said Steve Dasher, a 4-H youth development adviser. "I think children, whether urban or suburban or rural, face the same problems but they are much more intense in urban areas."

In fact, some projects, such as Neighborhood Watch programs, are aimed directly at urban youth. Others deal with drug abuse prevention and teach children where to find necessary social resources.

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