4-H's Crop of Non-Farm Kids

Jennifer Lenhart
August 11, 2005

Here's a modern Montgomery 4-H family, its home taken over by 4-H projects in the pressure-filled week before the county fair, but there's not a barn in sight, not a single farm animal on the property.

Not one member of the Germantown family of Dolores and John Reaves has lived in the country, much less on a working farm. When family members go to 4-H meetings, and they go every week, they gather in the suburbs with other suburban families. They plan ethnic menus, create sewing patterns with globe-spanning cultural references, encourage the timid to start backyard gardens, maybe growing just a squash or two.

From left, Baylea Fones, 8, watches barn building by her family, Drew, 14, Kyle, 13, Gil, 16, Brent, 11, and their father, Gil Fones. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)
They put in long hours in hopes of exhibiting their goods at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, the annual showcase for 4-H projects, with cash prizes available in hundreds of categories. Last year, the Reaves's daughter, Sophia, 14, took home more than $100 in prize winnings for projects that included a presentation on how to kill annoying household insects.

On Sunday, Dolores Reaves and the children gathered around the kitchen table to critique dried floral arrangements and sand mosaics. The ones that turn out best will be entered in some of the fair's many art and craft exhibits.

That tomorrow's grand opening of the fair was starred and underlined months ago on the family calendar surprises no one more than Reaves, a former Army nurse raised with views of the New York skyline from her family's place in Newark, N.J.

"I thought 4-H was just farmers," Reaves said, as Joshua, 8, rushed over to show off another mosaic. "I'm from the city. I grew up across from Manhattan. It just didn't seem like me to be involved in 4-H. I had friends who did and I thought they were crazy. I just never would've believed we'd all be in 4-H."

And yet, there she was Sunday, offering commentary as her oldest daughter, Besilica, 18, cooked batches of mint jelly to be entered in the soft-spreads category, and Sophia impaled a preying mantis on a needle for her entomology exhibit.

Going back five or six years, there she was hauling husband and kids to their first 4-H meeting, barely getting through the door before they were hailed with "hellos" from all the people they knew.

"Everybody said, 'Oh, it's the Reaveses. ' It was a big group. We met at the fairgrounds, and no one lived on a farm," Reaves said. "I forget which friend said to me, 'Look, you don't need an animal to be a part of this.' "

The 4-H was founded in 1902 with a mission to help children from 8 to 18 years old develop skills for living. (The four H's mean Head, Heart, Hands and Health.) But the 4-H is not just about life on farms anymore. The 4-H is reaching out to families in cities and suburbs, while keeping its traditional base of farm-based youths.

"The 4-H is opening up a lot," said Alganesh Piechocinski, 4-H and youth development extension educator in the Montgomery Cooperative Extension Service. "We do a lot of outreach, and we're bringing in kids with a lot of different ethnic backgrounds: African American, Asian, Hispanic. We are bringing in kids from urban areas who want to know more about animals, and we are teaching them about healthy living, eating nutritiously."

The changing nature of the 4-H and its quest to be more relevant and inclusive were the leading issues during the National 4-H's centennial in 2002. In a report submitted to then-Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, the organization's leaders pledged a greater focus on mentoring, education, diversity and civic engagement. The Agriculture Department, in partnership with state and county governments, finances 4-H operations. Montgomery's 4-H receives financing from Agriculture, the University of Maryland's cooperative extension and the county's economic development department.

The National 4-H is tracking its progress in meeting its outreach goals. In 2003, the last year for which statistics were compiled, the organization reported that of 7 million youths enrolled nationally, 57 percent lived in urban and suburban areas, and 31 percent identified themselves as minorities.

About 1,000 Montgomery children are members of 4-H, with an almost equal split between city kids and those in more rural areas, said Jeannie Raines, the county 4-H's program assistant. The county has about 22 traditional animal clubs, where kids learn about livestock such as cattle, goats, horses, pigs, sheep and poultry. Another 20 groups are known as community clubs, with core programs in nutrition, managing daily finances and cooking and menu planning.

From left, Baylea Fones, 8, watches barn building by her family, Drew, 14, Kyle, 13, Gil, 16, Brent, 11, and their father, Gil Fones. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)
There are community clubs for people interested in aerospace, science and technology and fashion. There are clubs for pet owners who show their animals at the fair and handle their animals during competitions in agility and obedience. A handful of parents whose children are home-schooled formed a suburban Montgomery club to give their kids a social outlet.

"There's a club for just about any interest," Raines said. "People form clubs if they have a special interest, like raising pets or the home-school group."

Anyone who wants to focus on a particular theme is welcome to round up members and propose a new club, Raines said.

In the Olney home of Kathy and Brian MacMillan, pets are the reigning interest. The couple's five daughters, ranging in age from 9 to 18, crowded into the kitchen last weekend along with two adult standard poodles, a standard poodle puppy and two barking dogs on loan from neighbors. (The extra dogs ensured that everyone had an animal during practice sessions.)

While the parents finished entertaining guests in the living room, the sisters explained that they mostly get along pretty well, maybe because they like a lot of the same things. They like dogs and being home-schooled by their mother. And they really like the excitement of going into the ring for the county fair's dog show.

In the show, the girls will compete according to age group, taking turns handling the poodles and the springer spaniel and golden retriever belonging to the neighbors.

Dog show competitors also will be required to perform in another of the 4-H's long traditions: the oral presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel of adult club leaders and judges. At the club level, members go through the oral presentation when they complete a project and want official recognition in the form of a ribbon or certificate.

At the fair, good speaking skills are rewarded with prize money and the judges' acclamation.

Besilica Reaves will need polished skills when she presents an explanation of her Fiesta table setting, complete with maracas, jalape? peppers grown in the backyard garden and other nods to her Puerto Rican heritage on her mother's side.

She'll need the skills again when she performs her official functions as a member of the fair's royal court -- five princesses and four princes chosen for their service to the fair and the 4-H. One function will be to make a presentation on the floor-length gown she made by hand and will wear Sunday during a ceremony to announce this year's king and queen.

"I've liked 4-H so much, especially for the public speaking stuff," Reaves said. "That's what I can see is helpful, that's tangible as far as right now."

The oral presentation is an area in which the MacMillan sisters have excelled, winning championships and prizes. The older MacMillan sisters say the confidence and communication skills they gained will stay with them after their time in the 4-H has ended.

The oldest daughter, Elizabeth, 18, recently attended a graduation ceremony for home-schooled kids in the area and hopes to study English and biology in college. She's thinking about a career as a science writer. No matter what happens, she said, she feels prepared.

"It started out as interacting with the dogs," she said. "But it's communicating, and everybody needs good communication, in life and in work."