For youth who want to gain citizenship, leadership and life skills, 4-H programs present an opportunity to do all of that while also exploring, learning and having fun.
4-H, symbolized by a four-leaf clover, was founded more than 100 years ago, and today there are 2,000 clubs across Texas serving more than 65,000 youth. Another 850,000 students are involved in 4-H through special educational opportunities in school, after school or at neighborhood and youth centers.
Like most organizations, 4-H has changed over the years—mainly as children's interests have expanded, said Chris Boleman, program director of 4-H and youth development at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
What kids are passionate about has driven the creation of 80 projects including food and nutrition, leadership, consumer decision making, clothing, shooting sports, photography and science.
Boleman said 4-H spent three years developing the science program, which includes computer sciences and technology. Some of the most popular projects include raising livestock.
In Harris County, there are more than 20 active 4-H clubs this academic year that give students the opportunity to take on projects such as raising livestock, photography, robotics, food and nutrition, and horticulture.
Children can participate in 4-H at a cost of $20 before Nov. 1 each year, or $25 after. Some projects may carry additional costs. For example, the photography project will require a camera and money to get film developed.
Although programs may come and go, the core values of the 4-H program have not changed.
"We are focused on developing leaders of tomorrow," Boleman said. "We take that foundation and do it through projects and club experiences."
Teaching children how to be leaders includes showing them how to be part of a meeting, parliamentary procedure and decision-making skills, he said.
Texas 4-H is also allowing more flexibility in being a member of the program. Years ago, participants would meet once a month and do a project, but today, they might meet once a week for six weeks.
Boleman said that is due in part to the fact that most children participate in activities for a short period of time, though there are yearlong projects for those students who would like to be more involved during the year.
The program continues to be successful because of the strong volunteer base that leads the projects with their expertise, Boleman said.
That is something the extension offices in each county across the country work on—connecting volunteers with skills in science, technology and other projects—to children living in more rural communities across the country.
For example, one of the more popular 4-H programs in Harris and Montgomery counties is the dog and companion animal program for which Boleman continues to seek out leaders who can help with the project.
"In the future, we will be connecting more volunteers, though we realize we will also have to do more communicating about who we are to those who don't know about us," he said. "We have the opportunity to grow and open some doors."