CONYERS -- An extremely shy child, Terri Kimble took the first steps in overcoming her introverted nature in 4-H. The program required her to make a speech in front of her elementary school class.
She stuck with 4-H, gave more presentations year after year and breezed through a freshman speech class at the University of Georgia.
"Some of my classmates were terrified, but I'd been doing it since fifth grade," Kimble said.
Kimble is now three years into her job as 4-H educator for the Newton County Cooperative Extension Office. In honor of National 4-H Week which runs today through Saturday, she wants to remind the public of the pivotal role 4-H plays in the lives of children.
Administered through the 109 land-grant universities across the U.S. and the Cooperative Extension System, 4-H -- which stands for head, heart, hands and health -- is the nation's largest youth development program. It consists of school-based activities, after-school clubs and programs, and summer camps.
Offerings range from livestock judging and horse club to leadership training and technology.
Locally, 4-H is run through the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Offices in Rockdale and Newton counties.
According to the National 4-H website, www.4-h.org, children enrolled in the program are nearly two times as likely to get better grades at school and to make plans for college.
They're also 41 percent less likely to engage in risky behaviors and 25 percent more likely to contribute positively to their families and communities.
"Self-confidence is one of the greatest benefits of 4-H, that and the academic skills," Kimble said. "That's one of the reasons I'm still with 4-H today. It absolutely made a difference for me."
4-H is administered monthly in all Rockdale and Newton schools in fifth grade, and each county serves between 1,300 and 1,400 students.
Public speaking is included in both county curriculums. Rockdale also offers a healthy lifestyles program -- covering areas like diet and exercise -- while Newton provides agriscience -- delving into subjects such as plant classification and genetic traits.
For the public speaking component, some students prepare five-minute presentations, complete with visuals like posters, on the subject of their choice.
Outside of school, about 300 elementary and secondary school students per county opt to join 4-H clubs and programs. Students compete in contests at the local, regional, state and national levels; join in hands-on learning activities, and create portfolios.
Two recent high school Newton projects that competed at the national level included how to produce a community musical and the role of technology in water conservation and flood mapping.
Rockdale is known for its judging teams, said Rockdale County Cooperative Extension Office Director Jule-lynn Macie. As members of a judging team, 4-H students are evaluated on their knowledge of certain areas like forestry, consumer science, the environment, horses, poultry and dairy-related topics.
"We offer so many things, they can pick and choose what they want to do," said Macie of the 4-H program.
Berry College student Elizabeth Mitchell, 18, attended Rockdale County 4-H for 8 years, concentrating on animal-related competitions including dairy quiz bowl and poultry judging. She has plans to become a veterinarian.
"It's been huge," said Mitchell of the role 4-H played in her life. "Being home schooled, it was my way of meeting others and connecting. And an animal class that I'm taking this semester all relates back to what I did in 4-H in high school and middle school."
The 4-H programs in both Rockdale and Newton counties also provide community components with students participating in newspaper recycling; book, food and toy drives; cancer research fund raisers; and aluminum pop tab collections, which are sold to benefit seriously ill children and their families.
Though the origins of 4-H began as an agricultural effort over 100 years ago, the program has evolved to meet the needs of today's generation and community, said Gimble.
"The biggest thing we tell parents is that we have monthly meetings and as long as your child is the right age, there's some place they can plug in," Kimble said.