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4-H is all about animals, right?

Monthly column from Minnesota 4-H director Dorothy McCargo Freeman

The goal of 4-H is to empower youth with skills to lead for a lifetime. We always have and always will be focused on young people.

So then, why do you suppose that many people think 4-H is about animals? And is that belief a problem? Should we try to convince others that we are not focused on animals?

I say no. And here is why.

Raising animals is a powerful way for youth to build critical life skills. Skills they can take with them no matter what their future holds.

A deep sense of responsibility

Welcoming another living creature into one’s life requires a reset of priorities. When a young person agrees to care for an animal, they are giving away a piece of themselves, their freedom, so that another creature can live well.

Think about the last time you wanted to spend the night away from home. It’s not so simple when another life is in your hands. Who will care for that animal while you are gone? A 4-H’er must ensure that their absence never for a moment puts into jeopardy the health and safety of their animal.

When a young person takes on an animal project with 4-H, they learn to be responsible.

Commitment and perseverance

Raising an animal is difficult work. Beyond keeping them alive and in good health, many 4-H projects also require training that animal for competition. Whether it is a llama costume contest, dog agility course or livestock show, each young person needs to invest hours and hours to prepare.

And that preparation rarely goes without difficulty or setback. Some days 4-H animals are unresponsive to a youth’s training. The llama feels frightened, the dog won’t run through the tunnel, the sheep refuses to align their hooves. What do such experiences teach 4-H youth? To keep trying. To come back tomorrow with patience and perseverance.

Animals don’t learn to trust a young person overnight. It’s the steady and ongoing work that ensures youth and animal can partner well.

When a young person takes on an animal project with 4-H, they learn to persevere.

Willingness to grow

Not a single person in the history of 4-H has been perfect from their very first attempt at raising an animal. It takes practice and help from others who know more in order to successfully care for and prepare an animal for 4-H competition.

What a gift caring adults are in the 4-H learning process. Staff and volunteers generously give their time and expertise to help 4-H youth learn more, grow in their understanding and experience greater levels of success.

When a young person takes on an animal project with 4-H, they learn from others.

So 4-H is all about animals?

My colleague Sharon Davis is the director of 4-H animal science programs in Minnesota. She often describes animal projects as a vehicle for growth. When a young person has a living creature in their care, they can travel to and through countless learning experiences. Experiences that can change their life.

Is 4-H all about animals? For thousands of youth every year, the answer is yes, absolutely. Because caring for animals is a wonderful way for young people to become learners, perseverant and deeply responsible.

Dorothy McCargo Freeman

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