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Citizenship is all about service

Monthly column from Minnesota 4-H director Dorothy McCargo Freeman

Through 4‑H citizenship programs, youth learn about civic affairs, build decision-making skills and develop a sense of understanding and confidence in relating and connecting to other people. These life skills help grow 4‑H youth into true leaders.
National 4-H Council

Five teenagers beautifying a city street with an adult volunteer
4-H club community clean up day
In 4-H, Minnesota youth have many opportunities to build citizenship skills such as confidence, respect, decision-making and integrity. At it's core, citizenship is not about where a person lives or where their family is from. It's about a deep sense of commitment and service to our community.

Citizenship starts at home

I'm the eldest of six children raised by James and Nannie McCargo. From the earliest of years, our parents expected us to contribute to our home and family. We washed dishes, cleaned house, did laundry and yard work and entertained younger siblings. These family responsibilities taught the McCargo children that we could and did make a difference. That our choices, our acts of service, impacted the people around us.

Building on those early citizenship skills

Skills introduced in the home can grow and flourish in enrichment programs like 4-H. Learning to serve others in growing levels of responsibility increases one's sense of value and ability to contribute.

It starts small. The youngest of 4-H'ers can bring treats or lead community-building games at club meetings. Youth can share project learning with others who are curious and plan community service projects too.

As youth build confidence and begin to identify the issues they care about most, greater opportunities to serve become apparent. Officer positions, committee membership and ambassador roles are safe and supportive places for youth to engage and make a difference for the people around them.

How to encourage service in young people

Research summarized by the Search Institute offers clues for how adults can encourage young people toward a life of meaningful service.

  • Be an excellent role model - Especially if you're a parent, your regular service is a strong indicator of whether your children will themselves willingly serve.
  • Invite youth to act - Youth are four times more likely to serve if you invite them, but only half of youth surveyed reported ever being asked.
  • Engage young people's energy and idealism - Youth volunteer because they want to do something about issues that matter to them. So ask what they care about and choose service opportunities accordingly.

Living out the 4-H Pledge

At its core, the 4-H Pledge is about lifelong citizenship. We grow and strengthen our head, heart, hands and health not just for our personal gain. We also develop our whole selves for our families, our clubs, our communities, our country and our world. 4-H is about growing local and global citizens. People who are skilled, competent and committed to lives of service.

When I talk with alumni about the most valuable part of their 4-H experiences, it often comes down to the pledge. We recite it as young members and practice its tenants as we grow. It's often not until years into adulthood that we see just how much the Pledge is a call to a life well lived.

I believe that without service, no matter how successful we are, it's easy to question our value. What difference do I make? Though I am professionally successful, this is not where my value lies. It is in the service I offer to my family, my faith and to 4-H. Our Pledge builds citizenship in all of us.

A life infused with service for others is a life each of us can be proud of. 



Research cited

Scales, P. and Leffert, N. (1999) Developmental Assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development. Search Institute.

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