Staff Photo: Erin Evans ---- Chelsea Wallace, president of the 4-H Club in Jennifer Arnold's fifth grade class at Middle Ridge Elementary School, uses a fan to turn a wind turbine during a lesson on the renewable energy source. Students are learning about using wind power to generate electricity and have been encouraged to create their own wind turbines
COVINGTON -- Every year in Newton County, more than 1,000 youngsters are given the opportunity to pursue their passions while also learning how to be better public speakers, leaders and community servants, and apply what they've learned in the classroom to the real world. They learn all of this through 4-H, the nation's largest youth development organization.
October is National 4-H Month. In Newton, 4-H is thriving, with around 1,500 students participating this year.
"I think our kids really benefit from having what's one of the biggest and most active 4-H programs in the world, right here," said 4-H Educator Terri Kimble.
The program originated in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902. The first clubs were known as Corn Growing Clubs or Tomato Growing Clubs. Newton is the birthplace of the South's 4-H clubs. The first local Corn Growing Club started here in 1904, and 101 boys demonstrated their projects at the Historic Courthouse the following year. A girls' Tomato Club started shortly after.
Nowadays, though agriscience is still a huge part of the 4-H curriculum, the focus has broadened, and students can do projects on any topic that piques their interest, from the arts to technology to the environment.
Ken Galloway, a senior at Eastside, has been in 4-H since the fifth grade, winning numerous awards on the state and district levels. He initiated a project on GPS systems in seventh grade and was able to get an internship with the local GIS department, where he learned about wastewater management and flood maps. Both issues became project topics.
"I like that 4-H combines everything every other club offers into one. Some clubs offer community service but don't offer the chance for leadership or public speaking. 4-H combines all those into one and it makes a great program overall," Galloway said.
The core values stressed in 4-H are agriculture, citizenship, communication, environment, family and consumer sciences and leadership.
Though many people still associate 4-H as being solely focused on agriculture, Kimble said fewer than 3 percent of students live on farms and out of between 1,400 and 1,500 kids in the program, just 14 are showing livestock this year.
However, 4-H leaders try to make sure the program doesn't stray too far from its origins by teaching agriscience to all members, with topics ranging from how a flower gets its color to water quality.
Also, "There is a strong emphasis on community service," said Kimble.
Each October, 4-H clubs nationwide collect pop tabs from soda cans to turn over to the Ronald McDonald House to recycle as a fundraiser. The Newton club's goal this year is to beat its 598 pound personal record set a couple of years ago.
One ambitious sixth-grader started a book collection fundraiser a few years ago. Ever since, 4-H'ers have been collecting between 2,500 and 3,000 books during the month of November to distribute to The Learning Center and to hand out to kids along the Christmas Parade route.
"It's 4-Hers really helping their peers and that's nice," Kimble said.
4-H also has the only youth led Relay for Life team, whose members, after noticing that trash was being thrown into recycling bins at the event, every year sort through mounds of garbage and recyclables at midnight to make sure they go to the proper place.
Primarily, 4-H serves kids age 9 through sixth grade, including homeschool students. Younger children can participate on a smaller scale by showing goats, lambs or horses. Fifth-graders in 10 elementary schools are automatically part of the 4-H program and are instructed in the classroom monthly. The program was once offered in all elementary schools, but there is no longer enough staff to assist all the students, Kimble said, so the first 10 schools to agree to require a project of all fifth-graders were selected.
Projects vary in length and complexity based on the child's age. Typically, students are required to speak for 4 to 12 minutes and turn in a written report. The project may also include a demonstration.
"It's taking their schoolwork and giving it real world relevance," Kimble said.
Project topics have ranged from nutrition to nuclear radiation to pointe shoes, and even how to host a community musical.
In addition, 4-H has yearly camps, a horse club, a livestock show team, judging teams, a Youth Leadership Program in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and other activities for members. The program is funded by Newton County government and the school system, as well as state and federal monies administered through the University of Georgia, and donations. Membership is free, though camps and other activities have fees attached.
For more information about 4-H, visit www.ugaextension.com/newton and click on 4-H Youth Development, or call 770-784-2010.