4-H membership growing across South Dakota | TSLN.com

4-H membership growing across South Dakota

Lura Roti SDSU Extension/iGrow.org

4-H is a tradition in Jennifer "Pearson" Ringkob's family. "I belonged to the Go-Getters 4-H Club. It's the same club my dad, Neal, belonged to and the same club my grandpa, Kenneth, was a leader of," says the SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Marshall and Day Counties.

Today, all three of her children continue the family's 4-H legacy. They are among a growing number of South Dakota youth who participate in the organization.

Statewide, 4-H membership grew in 2014 by 500. Today, South Dakota 4-H boasts 8,911 members. Ringkob says continued growth can be attributed to many factors – specifically the program's ability to break traditional molds and evolve to meet the changing needs of youth and families throughout the state.

"Kids have so many choices today. We work to ensure that 4-H continues to be a choice they want to make," Ringkob says. "We have really broadened our horizons to provide more activity and programming opportunities."

Reflecting on the 4-H she participated in as a child and comparing it with the 4-H she and her children are part of today, Ringkob says the organization has increased programming in the areas of leadership, advocacy, STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) and healthy relationships.

"4-H has always been about having something for everyone," explains Peter Nielson, SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Program Director. "We've worked closely with communities to develop activities and programming which appeal to today's youth and their families."

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The delivery system has also changed. Today Ringkob and many of her peers, like Megan Peterson, provide after school programming to introduce 4-H and its opportunities to students and families who may not otherwise be involved.

As the SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Tripp and Gregory Counties, Peterson regularly leads hands-on science activities for youth. "In our after school program, the kids have been in class all day so they are ready to have fun. The other day we made cardboard boomerangs and discussed the design, why they fly and why they come back to us when we throw them," Peterson said.

Last summer, youth utilized GPS units to participate in a scavenger hunt around Burke Lake State Park. "It was a great way to incorporate STEM with exercise," Peterson explains.

In McCook County, SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor, Alicia Reif, coordinated with FFA Advisor and 4-H volunteer, Terry Rieckman, to start the McCook Central 4-H Club for youth who do not already belong to a 4-H club.

"It's a natural fit," says Rieckman, who grew up in 4-H and has taught agriculture education at McCook Central High School for more than 30 years. "We are slowly seeing students take advantage of 4-H opportunities they did not already have through FFA."

He adds that any time students have the opportunity to develop their leadership and speaking skills, communities should embrace it. "It's huge. These kids will someday be sitting on our co-op boards, school boards and in boardrooms. They need the ability to persuade others," Rieckman explains.

Volunteer support and community buy-in have always played an important role in 4-H. In recent years, Nielson says there has been a trend toward increased involvement. Today, more than 1,700 South Dakotans serve as 4-H volunteers. "By partnering with other organizations and calling on volunteer involvement, we can more effectively reach youth and communities," Nielson says.

He points to a recent Farm Safety Day hosted by the Marshall County Extension Office and the Community 4-H Promotion and Expansion Committee in Ringkob's counties. This committee was formed to increase outreach to non-4-H members and their families. "We are a rural community and have many youth who live and work on farms. We wanted to focus on educating the kids so that accidents can be prevented," Ringkob says.

The volunteers on the committee organized the event and garnered support from school administration who hosted the event on the school grounds, making it possible for more than 90 fifth through eighth graders to attend.

"It's exciting to see youth who are not already in 4-H receive benefits from 4-H programming – and hopefully it will spark their interest and they will want to become involved," says Vicki Renner, a Community 4-H Promotion and Expansion Committee volunteer.

Benefits like community involvement, public speaking, organizational skills and a network of friends are the reason, Renner, a former 4-H member, encouraged her sons, Thane, 16, and Weston, 13, to become involved in 4-H because she recognizes these skills as lifelong benefits.

This community partnership led to additional opportunities for local 4-H members when members of the Governer's Commission on Fort Sisseton reached out to Ringkob and local 4-H volunteers looking for youth to reenact local ghost stories during the Ft. Sisseton State Park Haunted Forest.

"They wanted 4-H Jr. Leaders to participate because they recognize them as the community's youth leaders," Ringkob said.

Developing leaders, Ringkob acknowledges, is among many time-honored 4-H traditions that will never change.