It's a Thursday evening and Wyatt Knutson, 11, develops code while Emily Rolfes, 14, tests their VEX robot on the obstacle course. It looks like they need to make a few adjustments before the State 4-H Challenge. They jot a few notes down in their journal for next week's 4-H meeting.
Although this 4-H Robotics gathering may not be the image that comes to mind when most South Dakotan's think of 4-H, it is an example of how today's 4-H programming has evolved explains Donna Bittiker, 4-H Field Operations Associate.
"4-H is designed to fit the needs of the today's youth, rather than getting today's youth to fit into the 4-H box," Bittiker said.
Bittiker quickly clarifies that in 2014 livestock shows, judging, baking demonstrations and 4-H rodeo continue to thrive and grow; but alongside these more traditional programs shooting sports, photography and robotics also capture South Dakota 4-H members' interest.
"There truly is a project area for everyone," said Peter Nielson, 4-H Youth Development Program Director. "While 4-H continues to have a great traditional agriculture presence, our urban presence and involvement in new programming continues to grow."
In response to cultural changes, youth and program needs, in 2011 the 4-H Youth Program Advisor position was created. As SDSU Extension moved from a county-focused to a regional system, 4-H Youth Program Advisors remained in County Offices, explained Karla Trautman, Associate Director of SDSU Extension.
"SDSU Extension reinforced the importance of youth programming with the implementation of 4-H Youth Program Advisors," Trautman said. "They are hired to focus solely on youth development education and volunteer development at the community level."
To increase awareness for 4-H programs among youth and their families, SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisors partner with local schools and other community groups to provide programming and solicit volunteers.
"We go into classrooms and provide programming that matches educational standards," explained Christine Wood, SDSU Extension 4-H Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) Specialist. "If it weren't for these partnerships, many would only see what 4-H does at the County Fair."
Volunteers like Emily Rolfes' mom, Susan, are essential to 4-H's continued success. "South Dakota 4-H continues to grow. With around 9,000 youth participating in more than 70 projector programming areas, the 40 Program Advisors rely heavily upon skilled volunteers to lead," said Nielson of the more than 1,500 registered 4-H volunteers statewide.
Susan Rolfes began leading a 4-H Robotics Group in Vermillion to introduce her children and their peers to computer programming and engineering. "4-H introduces the kids to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields in a way that the schools just don't have the funding to do," said Susan, who has a degree in computer science and engineering and works in an IT department. "It also allows me to get to know my kids and their friends in a unique way as we work on projects together."
For my club, my community, my country & my world
Building bonds between families and communities is something 4-H involvement encourages, explained Bittiker. "Adult interaction from 4-H volunteers is integral to the overall experience. It's positive for youth to see parents and community members in a service role. Volunteers are mentoring future community leaders."
Founded upon a credo of loyalty, service and healthy living, as a program of SDSU Extension, 2014 marks a century of 4-H serving South Dakota's youth. A point which Gov. Dennis Daugaard, himself a 4-H alumnus, made clear in his May 8, 2014 Proclamation celebrating its centennial.
"Each week, all over South Dakota, groups of boys and girls gather in community centers, living rooms, church fellowship halls and school gymnasiums, where they recite a pledge. It goes, in part, "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service and health to better living...The four simple phrases invite our children to embrace an attitude of thoughtful service, a source of great pride for many South Dakotans," wrote Daugaard.
The opportunity for her son, Kody to become involved in service projects peaked Heidi Komes' interest. When Tacy Langemeier, the SDSU Extension Meade County 4-H Youth Program Advisor first visited Kody's rural school to help organize a 4-H Club. "When she talked about 4-H being about more than projects, I thought it would be good for Kody. He has ADHD so I thought being around other kids working on service projects outside of school would be healthy," said Komes, who ranches with her husband, Scott, near Union Center.
The kindergarten-thru-eighth-grade club members organize roadside clean-up projects, an Angel Tree gift collection and save pop caps for the Ronald McDonald House in Rapid City. "These service projects have shown Kody what it means to be a good citizen," Komes said.
Following Storm Atlas, Kody experienced what it was like to be on the receiving end of service, when a Young Cattlemen's group from Alabama raised money to donate heifers to families, like the Komes who lost about 65 percent of their cattle in the storm.
The group from Alabama donated enough money to purchase 21 heifers. They traveled to South Dakota and stayed with the families who received the donated heifers. Together, everyone helped vaccinate and brand the heifers. "Strong friendships were built between the families. It really warms your heart that people from so far away cared so much," Komes said.
She and Scott gave the donated heifer to Kody for his 4-H project. A 4-H club in Wyoming also donated a heifer to Kody. Each night Kody works with his dad to halter break the heifer, which he plans to show at the Meade County Fair.
"We have never shown an animal before, but Tacy said she'd help us out at the fair and some of our neighbors have stopped over to give us a few tips," Komes said.
Community members working together to help each other out is not a new concept. It's been a founding principle of 4-H since its start in South Dakota 100 years ago, however through diverse programming and creative partnerships, today's 4-H community has expanded to encompass more youth on South Dakota's reservations and in urban areas.
"From livestock and shooting sports to public speaking, youth gardens and STEM, today's 4-H has more to offer today's youth than ever before," Bittiker said. "It may be 100-years-old, but 4-H is current, robust and full of energy as we move into the future."
To learn more about South Dakota 4-H and youth programming offered through SDSU Extension, visit iGrow.org.